Moral error theory and the argument from epistemic reasons.

Author:Rowland, Richard
 
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  1. The Argument from Epistemic Reasons

    THE MORAL ERROR THEORY INVOLVES two components: a conceptual component and an ontological component. According to the conceptual component, moral facts and claims entail facts and claims about categorical normative reasons. According to the ontological component, there are no categorical normative reasons. (1) Recently several philosophers, most notably Terence Cuneo, have tried to argue against the moral error theory on the grounds that it entails that there are no epistemic reasons for belief. (2) One way, which is not exactly Cuneo's way, of arguing against the error theory on these grounds I call the Argument from Epistemic Reasons. (3) According to this argument:

    (1) According to the moral error theory, there are no categorical normative reasons.

    (2) If there are no categorical normative reasons, then there are no epistemic reasons for belief.

    (3) But there are epistemic reasons for belief.

    (4) So there are categorical normative reasons (2, 3).

    (5) So the error theory is false (1, 4).

    In this paper I provide a thorough articulation and defense of the argument from epistemic reasons against the moral error theory. In section 2, I articulate and defend premises (1) and (2). In section 3, I provide an argument for premise (3). And in section 4, I defend the argument from epistemic reasons from some objections to the argument as a whole.

    In section 2, I defend the claim that if there are no categorical normative reasons, then there are no epistemic reasons for belief. The most promising challenge to this claim holds that epistemic reasons are not really normative because epistemic reasons can be reductively analyzed in terms of nonnormative facts about probability-raising but categorical moral reasons for action cannot be reductively analyzed in terms of nonnormative facts. I demonstrate that the arguments against reductively analyzing moral reasons in terms of nonnormative properties have analogues that are equally good arguments against reductively analyzing epistemic reasons in terms of nonnormative properties.

    Some defenders of the error theory do not accept the third premise of the argument from epistemic reasons--that is, some defenders of the error theory claim that there are no epistemic reasons for belief. (4) In section 3, I argue that if there are no epistemic reasons for belief, then no one knows anything. My argument for this is that if S knows p, then there is some epistemic justification for S to believe p, and if there is some epistemic justification for S to believe that p, then there is an epistemic reason for S to believe p. So, if S knows p, there is an epistemic reason for S to believe p. And so in order to show that there are epistemic reasons, all we need to do is to show that someone knows something. And we can do this because if someone believes that there is thought, they know that there is thought, and many of us know that we do not know everything; it is hard to understand how we could not know these things. So there are epistemic reasons for belief.

    It would not be distorting to reduce my version of the argument from epistemic reasons against the error theory to the argument that the error theory entails that no one knows anything, but some people do know something, so the error theory is false. It might seem that arguing against the error theory on the grounds that it entails that no one knows anything is just providing a Moorean argument against the moral error theory. In section 4, I show that, even if my argument against the error theory is indeed a Moorean one, it avoids objections that Bart Streumer, Jonas Olson and Tristram McPherson have made to previous Moorean arguments against the error theory. I also argue that my argument against the error theory is more powerful than Moore's argument against external world skepticism.

  2. The Moral Error Theory Entails that There Are No Epistemic Reasons.

    According to the first two premises of the argument from epistemic reasons:

    (1) According to the moral error theory, there are no categorical normative reasons.

    (2) If there are no categorical normative reasons, then there are no epistemic reasons for belief.

    These two premises amount to the following claim: The moral error theory entails that there are no epistemic reasons for belief.

    According to the moral error theory's ontological component, there are no categorical normative reasons. (5) Categorical normative reasons are normative reasons for agents to do things or have certain attitudes irrespective of their desires, aims, wants and feelings, and the roles in which they happen to find themselves; these reasons for agents to do things are ontologically/existentially independent of these agents' desires, aims, wants, feelings and roles. (6) In contrast, hypothetical normative reasons are reasons for agents to do things or have certain attitudes that are not independent of these agents' desires, aims or roles. For instance, if, but only if, you like blueberry muffins, there is a reason for you to buy some.

    It seems that moral facts and claims entail categorical rather than hypothetical reasons because agents' desires and goals do not seem relevant to their moral reasons. If two people are in the same situation, they have the same moral reasons to act. For instance, if two people see a child close to drowning in the water, they both have moral reasons to try to save the child, regardless of differences in their desires, interests or goals.

    But it is not only moral reasons that seem categorical: Epistemic reasons for belief also seem categorical. It seems that the fact that there are dinosaur bones around is a reason for everyone to believe that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, regardless of whether they want to believe this or not. In general, two agents in the same epistemic situation--that is, with the same evidence and background beliefs--seem to have the "same reasons for believing any given proposition, regardless of possible differences in their personal goals." (7) So, it seems that the moral error theory's ontological component, the claim that there are no categorical reasons, entails that there are no epistemic reasons for belief as well as no moral reasons for action. In the rest of this section, I consider many ways it might be argued and several ways it has been argued that the moral error theory does not entail that there are no epistemic reasons for belief.

    Moral error theorists might claim that, although epistemic reasons for belief and moral reasons are alike in being categorical, they are unlike one another in that moral reasons are reasons to perform acts and epistemic reasons are reasons for belief, and thus there can be epistemic reasons even if there are no moral reasons. But moral error theorists are not, qua error theorists, skeptics about the facts (or propositions) that we take to be moral reasons. (8) Nor are they skeptics about the acts for which we take these facts to be reasons. Rather, moral error theorists are skeptics about the reason relation that we take to hold between the facts and the acts. Some fact's being a normative reason for an act is just its having the relational property of being a normative reason for an act. What moral error theorists are skeptical about is precisely this normative warranting relation between facts and acts. Moral error theorists claim that categorical normative warranting relations do not exist. But if the moral error theory's skepticism is about categorical normative relations, they cannot be skeptical about categorical normative relations that have acts as one of their relata, but not about categorical normative relations that have beliefs as one of their relata. (9)

    Moral error theorists might claim that epistemic reasons are not really categorical reasons but are merely hypothetical reasons. If error theorists can coherently hold that moral reasons for action are categorical reasons but epistemic reasons for belief are not categorical reasons, then the moral error theory does not entail that there are no epistemic reasons.

    However, moral error theorists cannot hold both that:

    There are epistemic reasons in the way that we understand them but these epistemic reasons are hypothetical reasons. And that:

    There are no moral reasons in the way that we understand them because there are only hypothetical reasons. Error theorists are not skeptical of hypothetical reasons. (10) But they hold that if there are only hypothetical reasons, our understanding of morality is radically mistaken, because our understanding of morality entails that there are categorical reasons. (11) However, our understanding of epistemic reasons and justification also entails that there are categorical reasons. As I said, it seems that there is reason for everyone to believe that dinosaurs once roamed the earth regardless of what they want to believe; there would still be reason for me to believe that I am in my office writing right now even if believing this made me extremely unhappy or did not promote any of my desires. Two agents in the same epistemic situation seem to have the same epistemic reasons, regardless of their desires or goals or the roles that they find themselves in, just as two people who see a child drowning seem to have moral reasons to save the child regardless of their desires, goals or roles. So, if there are only hypothetical reasons for belief, our understanding of epistemic reasons is just as badly mistaken as our understanding of morality and moral reasons is if there are only hypothetical reasons for action. (12)

    Rather than arguing that epistemic reasons are conditional on particular desires, however, Hilary Kornblith argues that epistemic reasons can be reduced to hypothetical reasons that are conditional on our having any desires at all. According to Kornblith, whatever we desire R is a reason for us to believe p if R improves the probability that p (or does so...

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