This thesis aims to construct a theory of what Richard Hamilton calls a “naturalistic normativism” (Hamilton, 2010). This thesis aims to present arguments for rejecting the current orthodoxy of naturalism in analytic philosophy, what John McDowell calls “bald naturalism” (McDowell, 1996), and what others have termed “Scientific Naturalism” (De Caro and Macarthur, 2004: 1). The theory of naturalism that this thesis aims to present has elsewhere been called Liberal Naturalism (De Caro and Macarthur, 2010: 1).
Naturalism is the orthodox position in analytic philosophy, and is the position that only what is natural is real. This might seem like a fairly innocuous position to hold but it has been transformed into an incredibly imperialistic system. The orthodox interpretation of naturalism in analytic philosophy is that (a) there is no such thing as a First Philosophy; (b) only the ontology and/or methodology of the natural sciences (i.e. the “hard” sciences, physics, chemistry, and biology) describes and explains what it natural; and (c) philosophy is continuous with the natural sciences. I follow John McDowell in labeling this orthodoxy of naturalism “bald naturalism”.
II The Meaning of Bald Naturalism
Let’s unpack what these three elements of bald naturalism mean.
A No First Philosophy
The dominant philosophical tradition in the Anglo-American academic sphere before analytic philosophy was Idealism. F. H. Bradley, Josiah Royce, and John McTaggart are all archetypal examples of this tradition. This tradition took great inspiration from German Idealism, and argued that there was a systematic a priori foundation to reality. They firmly believed that in order to make sense of everything, one had to construct a First Philosophy to ground any kind of investigation into the universe. Any kind of ontology or methodology one tried to fashion in the natural sciences needed to be grounded in a rigorously “rational” First Philosophy.
Contemporaneous to Idealism was Positivism. Mario de Caro and David Macarthur argue that this competing philosophical tradition was the first naturalist tradition (De Caro and Macarthur, 2004: 8). De Caro and Macarthur explain that
[the] nineteenth-century positivism of Comte, Mill, Spencer, Mach, and other was a commitment to the idea that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge there is and that philosophical method is nothing other that scientific method. Although science and philosophy of science had been growing in importance since the scientific revolution, the positivists were, in effect, the first fully fledged [bald] naturalist movement (Ibid).
The the beginnings of analytic philosophy saw its inauguration as a kind of hybrid of both Positivism and Idealism. De Caro and Macarthur further explain that
[it] is an important fact about analytic philosophy that its founders strongly attacked [bald] naturalism, even as they called for a scientific philosophy. Frege and Wittgenstein notoriously rejected the positivists’ psychologism in the philosophy of logic. And togher with Russell and the Logical Positivists, they believed that “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts” by way of logical or conceptual analysis. Early analytic philosophers believed that philosophy could investigate logic, or elucidate the structure of knowledge or the nature of our concepts, a priori without any help from the empirical sciences (Ibid).
De Caro and Macarthur continue:
Russell’s hopes for a “scientific philosophy” must be understood in the light of a widespread confidence that philosophy is fundamentally distinct from science and that philosophy is authoritative over its own domain of logic. Analytic philosophers followed Russell in hoping that by employing modern methods of logical analysis “philosophy would thus achieve something like the status of a science”, not in becoming science but in adopting a method that, like science, is “co-operative and cumulative” (Ibid).
Early analytic philosophy was thus anti-naturalist in the sense that it posited a First Philosophy. The Logical Positivism of early analytic philosophy argued that there must be a single unified a priori conceptual system into which all knowledge about the universe had to be organised into in order to be truthful.
The transition of analytic philosophy into naturalism as the dominant philosophical tradition radically rejected this position. As Macarthur and de Caro say,
[no] one is more important in undermining this early analytic conception of the relation of philosophy and science that W. V. Quine. His attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction and the possibility of traditional a priori truths dismantled the presuppositions of the logical analysis of language or concepts that was central to the “Linguistic Turn”. Quine’s naturalisation of epistemology undermined the last vestiges of First Philosophy and strongly endorsed the continuity between philosophy and science (Ibid).
The rejection of First Philosophy claims that there is no a priori rationalist foundation to any coherent, sound, or valid system of knowledge anymore. Only the contingent empirical methods of natural science explain what is real or not. Any system is potentially revisable at any time based on new empirical “scientific” observations. There is no conceptual system which is true which avoids incorporating empirical methods anymore, the rejection of First Philosophy claims.
B The Ontology and Methodology of the Natural Sciences
Bald naturalism argues that the only ontology and methodology which anyone can ever use in any “rational” discourse about anything can be that of the natural sciences, the “hard” sciences. De Caro and Macarthur explains that in this way bald naturalism amounts to a “scientism”: the only valid discourse anyone can ever enter into to make any sense when talking about something, or talking with or to someone else is the discourses of the hard sciences: this scientism says
… not only that modern natural science provides a true picture of nature but, more contentiously that it is the only true picture. Wilfrid Sellars expresses its animating spirit in his remark that “science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not” (Ibid: 4).
Ontologically, then, naturalists who advocate a metpahysical picture of nature that amounts to a strong physicalism are bald naturalists, because they argue that only the objects explained in the most up-to-date system of physics are real. The same goes for all the other hard sciences, chemistry and reductive and determinist forms of biology.
Methodologically, bald naturalists don’t just argue against the existence of a First Philosophy, but they claim that philosophy is continuous with the natural sciences. This doesn’t mean they consider philosophy to be a kind of science. Bald naturalists mean that natural science dominates and dictates what is acceptable philosophical discourse. For bald naturalism, only the discourses of the hard sciences are up for analysis and discussion in philosophy. The only kind of philosophy which is valid is the philosophy of the hard sciences.
III Why We Should Reject Bald Naturalism
It follows from above that bald naturalism argues that nature is a physically and causally closed system. Nature is governed by a causal order of efficient causation, and nothing intervenes in this order. The first argument of this thesis is that we should reject Bald Naturalism. I argue that we should reject Bald Naturalism because it rejects the existence of normativity in its picture of nature. The reductive picture of the natural sciences that bald naturalism advocates rejects the reality of human value and normativity. The methodologies and ontologies of these supposed reductionist hard sciences for instance exclude the existence of moral entities, like moral facts, moral properties, or moral states of affairs from valid kinds of discourse.
A The Core Argument of This Chapter
As Terence Cuneo, David Macarthur, and Mario de Caro explain normativity is something like the following example:
We normally say, for example,that one ought to keep one’s promises, and that if one accepts p and “If p, then q”, one ought to accept q, or that Mozart was a better musician than Salieri (De Caro and Macarthur, 2010: 4; Cuneo, 2007).
I want to argue that this “oughtness” of normative facts, or “evaluativeness” of normative facts is a real feature of nature, and that bald naturalism ought to be rejected because it refuses the existence of these facts. In this chapter, in order to argue that bald naturalism is false, I want to put forward the following argument:
- If bald naturalism is true, then moral realism is false and normativity is not part of the universe.
- If moral realism is true, then normativity must be a part of the universe.
- Moral realism is true.
- Therefore bald naturalism is false, and normativity is indeed part of the universe.
The above is a deductive argument, and virtually the entire argument turns on the third premise. If the third premise is false, then it turns out that the disjunctive premises 1 and 2 will render the conclusion unsound. I will call the above argument the Core Argument of Chapter One.
I will prove the above third premise of the Core Argument is true by making another argument. I will call this argument Cuneo’s argument, because it is the main argument of Terence Cuneo’s book The Normative Web (2007). This is Cuneo’s argument:
1. If moral facts do not exist, then epistemic facts do not exist. 2. Epistemic facts exist. 3. So, moral facts exist. 4. If moral facts exist, then moral realism is true. 5. So, moral realism is true (Ibid: 6).
The two premises which require significant argument are premises one and two. In this chapter I will rehearse Cuneo’s arguments as to why moral facts must exist if epistemic facts exist. Cuneo calls it “defending the parallel”. The second chapter of this thesis will perform an argument by elimination to show that epistemic anti-realism must be false. I will rehearse Cuneo’s arguments as to why epistemic nihilism and epistemic expressivism should both be rejected.
The idea behind this strategy is called a ‘Companions in Guilt’ argument. We will show in this chapter than moral and epistemic realism are incredibly similar positions. We will show that they are in fact so similar, that to adopt one type of realism, say, epistemic realism, forces one to adopt the other kind—moral realism. The same goes the other way—to reject moral realism would be to reject epistemic realism. And that is the purpose of the next chapter. I will demonstrate that epistemic anti-realism is such an undesirable position that any reasonable person would be forced to reject it. Rejecting epistemic anti-realism would therefore force one to reject moral anti-realism.
Many anti-realists about moral discourse would find the consequence of embracing epistemic anti-realism very undesirable, so the purpose of this part of the thesis is to construct this equivalence between accepting both types of realism in order to open a space for the rest of the thesis. The purpose of this part of the thesis therefore is to open a space for discussion predicated on the possibility or probability that moral realism is true, because we will show in this chapter and the next that epistemic and moral realism stand or fall together.
The rest of the thesis after this part is therefore constructive. Attempting to force moral anti-realists into a corner, this admittedly defensive first part of the thesis will lay the groundwork for attempting to build a naturalistic philosophy which is compatible with moral realism.
Terence Cuneo’s argument for his first premise of his argument for moral realism is that moral and epistemic facts are so similar that to reject moral facts would force one to have to reject epistemic facts. Moral and epistemic facts are similar in the following ways:
- First, They both instantiate some categorical reasons for agents to behave in certain ways; and
- Second, they are structurally isomorphic, that is to say there rational structure is completely identical; and
- Third, the behavioural responses that moral and epistemic facts favour are completely identical. Behaviour based on both kinds of facts is the same. To phrase this in another way, we can say that moral and epistemic facts do not favour different kinds of behaviour in their two different rational contexts; and
- Moral and epistemic facts are not just coextensive, and share a single normative context, but mutually entail, support, indicate, and refer to one another. Cuneo refers to this mutual interdependence as the normative web of realism. This is the reason why his book is this metaphor.
Before we deal with Cuneo’s argument regarding the four types of similarity between moral and epistemic facts, let us get clear about what we mean about “realism”. What does Cuneo mean by the term “realism”? He means the following:
A realist conception of moral and epistemic features is something that, all else being equal, ordinary mature human agents whose cognitive faculties are functioning adequately in a world such as ours take for granted in their everyday doings and believings (Ibid: 11).
This explains why Cuneo takes the path that he does in arguing for moral realism. He feels that
[it] is because this way of viewing things is rather firmly entrenched in our shared world picture that it is difficult to formulate arguments for moral or epistemic realism that appeal to premises more obvious than the positions themselves. (Imagine trying to make sense of our ordinary moral and epistemic practices while also assuming that those who sincerely engage in these practices do not think that there are moral or epistemic reasons or that such reasons can be shrugged off if we fail to have appropriate desires.) This, or so it is suggested, is why positive arguments for realism regarding moral or epistemic facts are … difficult to come by. And it is also why, when arguments are offered for moral and epistemic realism, they generally have the form of eliciting the implausible implications of their rivals rather than citing the theoretically positive characteristics of the realist views themselves (Ibid).
I will adopt Cuneo’s defensive position in this chapter, but this strategy of arguing for moral realism will not be the main strategy of my thesis. I want to construct an inflationary account of naturalist normativism: an account of naturalist normativism which gives a specific account of naturalist normativism. I want to explain precisely how moral realism is true, even when naturalism is true.
IV Defending the Parallel: If Moral Facts Do Not Exist, Then Epistemic Facts Do Not Exist
Cuneo sets the stage for arguing that if moral facts do not exist if epistemic facts do not exist by introducing the view he calls ‘epistemic realism of a paradigmatic sort’. From there he finds four similarities between epistemic facts and moral facts which establish the truth of the first premise of Cuneo’s Argument.
A The Epistemic Realist’s Speech Act Thesis
Cuneo writes that in the first place, the epistemic realist defends:
The Epistemic Realist’s Speech Act Thesis: Some epistemic discourse is assertoric.
Suppose we assume that an ‘epistemic sentence’ is any sentence whose surface logical form is that of either (i) predicating a simple (i.e non-compound) epistemic property of an particular entity or (ii) a universal generalisation to the effect that, if something has a given feature, then it has a simple epistemic property. According to this account, sentences such as ‘Sam’s belief about UFOs is irrational’ and ‘Beliefs based on good evidence are justified’ are examples of epistemic sentences. Call sentences of the first type ‘predicative epistemic sentences’ and those of the latter sort ‘general epistemic sentences’. Epistemic discourse, as I shall understand it, is discourse that consists only in the sincere utterances of epistemic sentences (Cuneo, 2007: 53-54).
Cuneo then says an ‘epistemic claim’ or ‘epistemic judgment’ is whatever mental state that is expressed by the sincere utterance of an epistemic sentence (Ibid: 54). Following on from this, an ‘epistemic proposition’ is the content (Cuneo says, ‘if you like, the object’) of an epistemic claim that purports (Cuneo: ‘in some cases at least’) to represent an epistemic fact (Ibid). Propositions of this type can be divided into two kinds. ‘Predicative epistemic propositions’ are those whose logical form corresponds to the (surface) semantic components of predicative epistemic sentences: ‘That Sam’s belief about UFOs is irrational is an example of such a proposition (Ibid: 19). Cuneo says ‘general epistemic propositions’ are those propositions whose logical form corresponds to the (surface) semantic components of general epistemic sentences (Ibid). That beliefs based on good evidence are justified is an example of a general epistemic proposition. Cuneo further says that
a speech act counts as a case of assertoric epistemic discourse, I will assume, just in case it consists in the explicit presentation of an epistemic proposition by way of the sincere utterance of an epistemic sentence (Ibid).
Let us bring all these claims together. The Epistemic Realist’s Speech Act Thesis tells us that discourse of this kind consists only in the sincere utterance of epistemic sentences and at least one such sentence is used explicitly to present an epistemic proposition.
There is also a moral analogue to this Epistemic Speech Act Thesis. It is called the Moral Realist’s Speech Act Thesis. This thesis forms part of the view called ‘Moral Realism of a Paradigmatic Sort’. It turns out that the Moral equivalent of the Epistemic Realist’s Speech Act Thesis is exactly the same, with all the same clarifications applying to both the Moral and Epistemic Realist Speech Act Theses.
The Moral Realist’s Speech Act Thesis: Some moral discourse is assertoric.
These clarifications are the following:
I will simply assume, following Cuneo, that there is a stock of simple predicative expressions that (in a wide range of common usage) we commonly recognise as moral and epistemic. For instance in moral discourse, I assume that evaluative expressions such as ‘is wrong’, ‘is just’, ‘is kind’, ‘is vicious’, ‘is evil’, and deontic expressions such as ‘is (morally) forbidden’, ‘is (morally) required’, is (morally) obligatory’ or ‘is a (moral) reason’ are good examples of simple predicative moral expressions. As such, I will follow Cuneo in assuming that discourse that consists only in the sincere utterance of well-formed predicative or general sentences that contain such predicative expressions count as moral discourse (Ibid: 23). See page 55 of The Normative Web for the epistemic analogue of these predicative expressions.
Cuneo explains that we must reject assertoric deflationism because it contradicts the realist’s speech act thesis. The realist’s speech act thesis asserts that when someone utters a proposition, they commit themselves to representing that the world exists in such a way. We are to understand the speech act thesis as being ‘robustly’ realist, committing an agent of the utterance of a proposition to picturing the world in a certain way ‘as it is anyway’. However assertoric deflationism is not compatible with this position. Assertoric deflationism is more compatible with a robust form of expressivism, where the utterance of a sentence-type such as
‘Genocide is wrong’
is always used merely to express the attitude:
No! to genocide.
What the above sentence expresses is not a proposition. In uttering it, someone does not express something truth-evaluable, neither does the person purport to predicate a moral property of anything. So it completely contradicts the realist’s speech act thesis.
B The Epistemic Realist’s Alethic Thesis
There is a second element to Cuneo’s description of Epistemic Realism of a Paradigmatic Sort: the Realist’s Alethic Thesis.
The Epistemic Realist’s Alethic Thesis: The contents of some predicative epistemic claims are true, and if the contents of such claims are true, then they are true in the realist sense.
The idea with this element of Epistemic Realism of a Paradigmatic sort, is that in some cases in which we say such things as ‘Sam’s belief about UFOs is irrational’ or ‘Sam ought to consider carefully the available evidence for Margaret’s claim’, we are saying something true. As Cuneo says:
These claims are true, according to the realist conception of truth, just in case there are facts such as that Sam’s belief about UFOs is irrational and that Sam ought to consider carefully the available evidence for Margaret’s claim (Cuneo, 2007: 55).
There is also a moral analogue to this alethic thesis. There is a Moral Realist’s Alethic Thesis. It expresses exactly the same structure as the epistemic thesis, only with the word ‘moral’ in place of the word epistemic.
The Moral Realist’s Alethic Thesis: The contents of some predicative moral claims are true, and if the contents of such claims are true, then they are true in the realist sense.
All the same qualifications Cuneo makes about the moral realist’s alethic thesis apply to the epistemic alethic thesis:
Cuneo says there are several ways to misread the two realist alethic theses. They can be broadly categorised into deflationary and inflationary readings of the realist’s claim. Let’s begin with deflationary readings.
1 Deflationary Readings of the Realist’s Alethic Thesis
One potentially deflationary reading of the realist’s alethic thesis is to say that it does not imply that truth is a genuine or ‘substantial’ property. That is, it might be claimed that the realist’s alethic thesis is compatible with the vie according to which the apparently predicative expression ‘is true’ fails to refer to the property being true or refers only to a ‘non-substantial’ property—that is, a property that fails to admit of any type of informative elucidation (Ibid: 26-27).
I follow Cuneo in precluding any such reading of the alethic theses. I shall assume along with Cuneo that truth—at least as it is predicated of moral and epistemic propositions—is a substantive property picked out (when all goes well) by the predicative expression ‘is true’. I follow Cuneo’s reasoning. The realist’s alethic says that the content of some moral claims is true. It is, however, a platitude accepted by both deflationists and realists that truth claims represent or correspond to reality. Deflationists gloss this platitude that it amounts to no more than that p is true if and only if p. But if we hold to the realist’s speech act thesis, we find the deflationary gloss on this correspondence platitude unattractive. Fundamental to the realist’s speech act thesis is the claim that the content of some moral claims purports to represent moral and epistemic reality—where ‘representation’ in this case is understood in a fairly robust sense. This (together with the alethic thesis) entails that some predicative moral claims are true and that they represent reality correctly—represent reality correctly in a fairly robust sense of ‘represent’ (Ibid: 27).
Cuneo continues, talking about the nature of truth-bearers in realist moral and epistemic discourse:
Admittedly, it doesn’t follow from this that the truth property consists in a truth-bearer’s representing reality aright. Nevertheless, to deny this claim would be peculiar, for it is difficult to see why, if true predicative claims do not consist in representing reality aright, they are nonetheless such that they necessarily accurately represent reality. If deflationism were true, the coincidence, as David Lewis says in another context, would be magical; there would be no accounting for why it obtains. How best, then, to explain the coincidence? (Ibid).
Cuneo answers that we should assume that the following is the most promising explanation: Truth is a genuine property such that when it is exemplified by a predicative claim (or its content), it consists in that claim’s (or its content) representing a correlative fact. If this is right, it follows that truth is also a ‘substantial’ property in the sense that we can give an informative account f that in which its instantiation by a predicative claim (or its content) consists (Ibid).
2 Inflationary Readings of the Realist’s Alethic Thesis
An inflationary reading differs from a deflationary reading in that instead of denying that truth is a property or a ‘substantial’ property of assertoric discourse, inflationism tries to give a very specific account of the nature of the truth property in the speech act thesis.
Cuneo wishes to dismiss inflationary readings of the alethic thesis, but I wish to give an inflationary account of the truth-property in Chapters 2 and 3 of this thesis. I will be adopting John McDowell’s epistemological and moral realism from his work in Mind and World (1996) and Two Sorts of Naturalism (1998: 167).
The only reason Cuneo wishes to dismiss inflationism is that he argues that such an inflationary account is not needed in order to prove the truthfulness of the realist’s alethic thesis. Because I am interested in giving a much more specific account of the reality of normativity, a naturalist account, I must resort to a much more specific account of epistemic and moral realism. A proper constructive account of how human normativity is compatible with a robust naturalism requires more than just to say normativity (say, moral realism) does not refute or contradict the sciences. They must be compatible in a more metaphysical sense, and I wish to construct an account of how this is so.
C Epistemic Realist’s Ontic Thesis
The third and final element of Cuneo’s realism of a paradigmatic sort for both moral and epistemic realism is the ontic thesis. The ontic thesis is the following:
The Epistemic Realist’s Ontic Thesis: There are irreducible epistemic facts.
The same as above, there is an exact moral analogue:
The Moral Realist’s Ontic Thesis: There are irreducible moral facts.
Cuneo explains what he means by this by first referring to what reductionism in the case of epistemic and moral facts.
Suppose we think of antirealist views of kind K as falling into two basic types. The first type is what we call ‘nihilist’ views. To be a nihilist with respect to ks is simply to deny that Ks exist. Cuneo gives an example: “For instance, to be a nihilist about beliefs is just to deny that there are beliefs” (Cuneo, 2007: 29). On the other hand there are ‘reductionist’ positions:
The reductionist concerning Ks does not outright deny that Ks exist. Rather, she claims that Ks exist, though, contrary to appearances, Ks are really Ys—where Ys are supposed to be less ‘ontologically problematic’ than, and significantly different from, what we intuitively or commonsensically assume Ks to be. Consider (psychological) behaviourism concerning beliefs in this regard. Behaviourists find our ordinary supposition that beliefs are mental states deeply problematic. They cannot see how a mental state could possess such mysterious qualities as being about the world or having a qualitative ‘feel’. Still, behaviourists do not simply deny that there are beliefs. Rather, they maintain that there are entities such as beliefs, but that contrary to the appearances, beliefs are not mental states. Beliefs, say behaviourists, are really just certain complex behavioural dispositions: The belief that it is snowing, for example, is just a complex behavioural disposition to do such things as put on gloves when venturing outside, answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Is it snowing?’ and so on. Behaviourists, in effect, ‘reduce’ beliefs to complex behavioural dispositions (Ibid: 29-30).
Cuneo asks us to suppose that we use schematic letter ‘C’ to stand for our ordinary or commonsensical conception of Ks. For the present purposes we can take a commonsensical conception of an entity to be a way of thinking about that entity which incorporates (or is constituted) a cluster of platitudes or truisms regarding the character of that entity. For example, a platitude regarding colours is that we usually can’t detect them simply by smell. The account of reduction Cuneo is proposing is that:
The Ks reduce to the Ys if and only if the Ks are identical with the Ys and the Ys fail to satisfy C (Ibid: 30).
As Cuneo thinks of them, then, reductions are always a species of so-called type-type reductions. As Cuneo says, classic behaviourists are reductionists about beliefs inasmuch as they identify beliefs with complex behavioural dispositions (Ibid).
Cuneo then goes on to make two qualifications. Although he spoke of metaphysical antirealisms as falling into two different kinds, he does not suppose that the distinction between these two types of antirealisms is a sharp one. He writes that it might be that, in some cases, it is unclear whether a view is best categorised as a nihilist view or a reductionist one. It may be the case that, for example, a proponent of a given view claims that Ks exist. On reflection, however, it might become apparent that this person is using the term ‘exist’ in less than its strict and proper sense “(perhaps she is a Meinongian of a certain kind)”. And, thus, rhetoric aside, it might be more illuminating to classify this view as a species of nihilism rather than reductionism (Ibid: 30-31).
The second qualification is that Cuneo pictures reductionism as existing on a spectrum between nihilism and realism. It may be the case that some reductionisms better satisfy the platitudes regarding some entities than others. The more a reductionist does violence, and revisionism, to our commonsensical, intuitive picture of our view of Ks, then the more antirealist and potentially nihilistic it may be. The less violence, the more of a realist account it is. In this chapter, we will only talk about reductionisms which are robustly antirealist.
Now this this work has been done, we can explain what it means for an entity to ‘irreducibly’ exist. To say that Ks irreducibly exist is to claim, first, that there is a commonsensical conception of Ks, fundamental to which are platitudes that concern the nature of Ks. Second, it is to claim that Ks exist if and only if they satisfy these platitudes. As such, Ks cannot be reduced to facts of a type that fail to satisfy platitudes central to our commonsensical conception of Ks (Ibid: 31).
2 On Common Sense
This concept of reduction presupposes that, with respect to entities of some kinds, there is something like an ‘ordinary’ or ‘commonsensical’ idea of what those entities are like. Cuneo is right to sign-post that this is bound to raise suspicion about his account of reductionism. So we need to do more work. We need to explain how this idea of commonsensical or ordinary ideas about the nature of entities is not problematic.
Two questions arise when trying to introduce this idea of commonsensical ideas: What, after all, could we mean by the claim that there is an ordinary or commonsensical conception of a kind? And what could be meant by the claim that there is an ordinary or commonsensical conception of specifically moral and epistemic features? There are two answers offered up by Cuneo, a less determinate answer, and a more determinate answer.
The less determinate response to the question is that a commonsensical conception of a moral or epistemic feature refers to a platitude that embodies
the content and objectivity of that feature that are sufficiently entrenched in the beliefs and practices of ordinary folk that moral realists and antirealists ordinarily attempt to accommodate them in their respective theories (Ibid: 32).
A reductionist account of a putatively epistemic or moral feature is then one which claims that the moral or epistemic feature is instantiated, but offers an account of the feature without genuinely honouring these platitudes. The more determinate reply is as follows. Cuneo says it takes its inspiration from an unlikely pair of philosophers—David Lewis and Thomas Reid. The proponent of this reply maintains that there are what we might call ‘commonly conceived kinds’:
Commonly conceived kinds are kinds of which most properly functioning, paradigmatically situated adults (e.g. those who live in social groups) at some time have the concept. Fundamental to our concepts of at least some commonly conceived kinds are various platitudes. For example: Most adults of this sort have the concept of being a coloured thing. And constitutive of our concept of being a coloured thing are platitudes such as ‘(nearly) all objects that we see appear to be coloured’, ‘things don’t usually look the colour they are in the dark’, ‘one usually cannot tell what colour an object is just by touching and smelling it’, and so forth. If a person were not explicitly to believe or take for granted these platitudes in her ordinary activities of judging, questioning, blaming, praising, inquiring, predicting, and so forth, that would be prima facie grounds that the person lacks the concept of being a coloured thing, or suffers from some cognitive malfunction, or occupies (or has occupied) some highly unfavourable epistemic situation (Perhaps, for example, she has been massively deceived about the nature of colours) (Ibid: 33).
What is the point of this more determinate reply? The reply tells us that some putatively moral and epistemic features are commonly conceived kinds. They are the sorts of thing of which most properly functioning, paradigmatically situated adults have the concept. It further claims that fundamental to our concept of certain moral features are platitudes of various sorts. If we discovered a person who did not also share these platitudes in her ordinary activities of judging, questioning, blaming, praising, inquiring, predicting, and so forth, this would be prima facie grounds for believing that this person lacks the concept of that putatively moral or epistemic feature, “or suffers from some cognitive malfunction, or is the victim of some highly unfavourable epistemic situation” (Ibid: 33-34). Cuneo explains further:
For example, it is plausible to believe that kinds such as being a just action or being a wicked action are commonly conceived kinds. It is also plausible to believe that fundamental to our concepts of these kinds are various platitudes. It seems to be constitutive of our concept of justice hat no action could be just that simply randomly discriminates against some group of persons. Accordingly, if a person were not to believe or take for granted that this platitude in her ordinary activities … this would be prima facie grounds for believing that this person lacks the concept of justice, or suffers from some cognitive malfunction, or has been misled by her teachers about the nature of justice (Ibid: 34).
3 Commonsensical Moral and Epistemic Realism
Let’s suppose, then, that there is a commonsensical conception of moral and epistemic features such as justice, kindness, and benevolence, in the case of moral features, and features such as warrantability, verifiability, and relevance, in the epistemic case. Our commonsensical conception of these features, as we have seen above, is comprised of various platitudes that, when all goes well, are indicative of the nature of these features. Cuneo writes that,
these platitudes are pregnant with important implications for what might be called our ‘commonsensical conception of moral facts’. The idea is that, if anything is a genuinely moral fact, then we have prima facie reason to believe that it would have to be such that it satisfies a certain set of platitudes. … I submit that lying at the heart of our commonsensical conception of moral facts are platitudes of two sorts—platitudes that concern the content and the authority of morality. I want now to elucidate these platitudes, and then say why I believe we have good reason to maintain that they are fundamental to our commonsensical conception of moral facts (Ibid: 35-36).
4 The Content and Authority Platitudes
Cuneo writes that to understand the platitudes that concern the content of morality, it it useful to return to some considerations that Philippa Foot pressed against emotivist and prescriptivist views several decades ago. Foot argued that not just any action could count as wicked, benevolent, compassionate, or wrong; that there are conceptual limits to what sorts of action could admit of these moral predicates. And though it was not her aim to offer a comprehensive account of what should fall under the concept of ‘moral’, Foot contended that acts that have one or another positive moral status are generally concerned to promote, sustain, or contribute in some fashion to genuine human well-being or the states and activities that are components thereof (Ibid: 36). Likewise, acts that have one or another negative moral status are typically concerned to frustrate, undercut, or destroy authentic human flourishing or the states and activities that are components thereof. In the case of moral facts, conceived in a realist sense, we might add that some actions have such an intimate connection to causing serious harm—e.g. torturing others for mere pleasure—that they are plausibly viewed as being necessarily wrong (Ibid: 37).
I agree with Cuneo that Foot’s contention regarding the conceptual limits as to what could count as a moral fact are correct. And if we add the qualification that there are conceptual limits on what could plausibly count as authentic human flourishing, there appear to be substantial restrictions on both what could count as a moral fact, and what could count as particular types of say a moral property such as justice, mercy, benevolence, etc.
Cuneo also claimed above that, in addition to there being platitudes concerning the content of morality, there are various platitudes that concern the authority of morality. He divides these platitudes concerning the authority of morality into two sorts: prescriptiveness and those that inescapably govern our conduct.
On the first type of platitudes on the authority of morality, Cuneo writes:
First of all, there are various platitudes to the effect that moral features of the world are prescriptive insofar as they are, imply, or indicate reasons for us to behave in certain ways. Consider the fact that an action is wicked. It is an apparent platitude to claim that, necessarily, the fact that an action is wicked provides persons in the appropriate circumstances with a reason to despise it, attempt to stop it, or the like. The truth of this platitude is guaranteed by what appears to be a conceptual truth about reasons and evaluative moral facts, viz., that if an entity has some evaluative moral property, (e.g. wickedness), then (all other things being equal) there is a reason for persons in the relevant circumstances to respond to that entity in the appropriate fashion. To which we should add that moral facts (or the reasons they indicate) on some occasions appear to provide persons with a decisive reason to act as they direct (Ibid).
Regarding the second type of platitude, Cuneo explains:
… there are platitudes that tell us that moral features are authoritative insofar as they inescapably govern our conduct. The idea here is twofold.
In the first place, the claim is that, necessarily, some moral reasons apply to persons and thereby give persons reasons to act (or indicate such reasons) regardless of whether they want to act in a morally upright fashion, or whether they belong to a certain social group, or whether they have entered into certain agreements with others, and so forth. … As such, some moral reasons are categorical and stand in contrast to so-called hypothetical and institutional reasons, which apply to persons only insofar as they have certain goals or are committed to institutions or social practices of certain kinds. (Think of the norms of etiquette as a contrast).
In the second place, moral reasons are authoritative inasmuch as the decisiveness of some such reasons for appropriately situated agents is not a function of whether such agents want to act in a morally upright fashion, or belong to a certain social group, or have entered into certain agreements with others, and so forth (Ibid: 37-38).
Cuneo concludes on the topic of the content and authority platitudes of moral realism:
Definitive of moral realism of a paradigmatic sort is the thesis that there is a commonsensical conception of moral facts. Moral facts irreducibly exist just in case such facts exist that satisfy the content and authority platitudes fundamental to our commonsensical conception of moral facts. They cannot be reduced to the sorts of fact that lack these characteristics (Ibid: 39).
Epistemic realism possesses some slightly different content and authority platitudes that need to be satisfied by a commonsensical conception of epistemic facts. Cuneo argues that there are three types of content and authority platitudes that are satisfied by a commonsensical conception of epistemic facts. First, regarding content platitudes, there is representativeness. Second, regarding authoritativeness, there is the platitude that epistemic facts (a) are prescriptive; and (b) inescapably govern our conduct.
Cuneo says that the content platitudes regarding epistemic facts are the same in form as those regarding moral facts. There are conceptual limits to what an epistemic fact can be. They can only be a particular type, and they cannot wantonly be any kind of fact. These three content and authority platitudes he argues for explain what ‘epistemic realism of a paradigmatic sort’ takes an epistemic fact to be.
In the first case, regarding content platitudes, an epistemic fact must be representational. Cuneo asks us to suppose that we say an entity x is representational with respect to y just in case x purports to represent y. Further, he asks us to support we say than an entity x represents y if and only if x is representational with respect to y and in fact is about, true of, or refers to y. Finally, Cuneo asks us to suppose that an entity x is representative only insofar as it is representational and represents that which it purports to represent, or is likely to do so, or is the product of an agent’s having done a sufficiently adequate job of trying to ensure that it represents reality correctly (Ibid: 56-57).
Cuneo comments on the similarities between this content platitude and that of moral facts:
… the content platitudes with respect to epistemic facts cluster around the notion of accurate representation in a similar fashion to the way in which the content platitudes with respect to moral facts congregate around the notion of human well-being. In the interests of ensuring that the content platitudes are indeed platitudinous, I shall not adopt any particular account of what it is that representation consists in. So while I assume for the moment that representation is a genuine ‘substantive’ relation that obtains between entities of various kinds, I aim to remain neutral on the question of how best to analyse this relation (or whether it can be analysed) (Ibid).
I would like to comment on this last stance by Cuneo. While Cuneo aims to be neutral about what epistemic facts are with respect to representation platitudes, I will not be. In the next chapter I will spell out a specific account I find persuasive for constructing a naturalist account of normativity. This is what is called John McDowell’s epistemological argument. This argument is McDowell’s account of the mind and how it establishes epistemic facts. McDowell’s philosophy of epistemic facts is that they are representative, but not in a way which makes them correspond or mirror the world. McDowell’s philosophy of mind is an identity theory of mind, and he establishes that we directly think epistemic facts in our minds, instead of representing them. As McDowell himself says, we directly think the content of the world, we don’t just represent it. We can think of McDowell’s philosophy of empirical experience as satisfying the representation content platitude, but in an unorthodox way. It is still a paradigmatic case of epistemic realism, even though it is an unorthodox one. This is how I will build my inflationary account of moral and epistemic realism.
The second two platitudes regarding epistemic facts concern the authoritativeness of epistemic facts. There are two senses in which epistemic facts are authoritative: that they are prescriptive, and that they inescapably govern our conduct—just like the platitudes regarding moral facts.
Regarding prescriptiveness, Cuneo says:
epistemic facts are, imply, or indicate reasons for properly situated agents to behave in certain ways. It appears, for example, to be a conceptual truth that, if a certain plan of inquiry is manifestly irrational, then its being irrational provides appropriately situated persons with an epistemic reason not to engage in it. It is similarly platitudinous to say that, if a person investigates a matter with appropriate care and thoroughness, then she is deserving of approbation of a certain kind—approbation that we express by saying she is conscientious or scrupulous.
On the topic of the platitude about inescapable governing of conduct, Cuneo argues:
The fundamental idea in this case is that some epistemic facts are, imply, or indicate categorical reasons for agents to behave in certain ways. As such, these facts are, imply, or indicate reasons for agents to behave in certain ways regardless of whether these agents care about conducting their behaviour in a rational way, whether they belong to a social group of a certain kind, or whether they have entered into social agreements with others.
Cuneo calls these content and authority platitudes of epistemic facts ‘the central platitudes concerning epistemic facts’. They are fundamental to the epistemic realist’s ontic thesis. The purpose of the platitudes is to describe what kinds of facts epistemic facts are. If a fact is to be an epistemic fact, it just satisfy these platitudes. The commonsensical nature of the platitudes we have about epistemic facts and epistemic reasons rely on these central platitudes in outlining just what an epistemic fact is.
D The First Similarity
It is easily observed that there is a close structural similarity between moral realism of a paradigmatic sort, and epistemic realism of a paradigmatic sort. Cuneo highlights the first main area of similarity between moral and epistemic facts:
On the assumption that we understand moral and epistemic facts to be those entities that our commonsensical conceptions of moral and epistemic facts purport to pick out, then facts of both kinds are authoritative. If such facts exist, then some facts of each kind are, imply, or indicate categorical reasons for properly situated agents to behave themselves in certain ways (Ibid: 62).
E A Framework For Thinking About Normative Facts: The Isomorphism of Moral and Epistemic Facts
There is a second similarity between moral and epistemic facts which further bolsters the premise that if moral facts do not exist, epistemic facts do not exist. The further argument for this premise is that moral and epistemic facts are both structurally isomorphic. Their structure mirrors each other. Epistemic and moral facts are both structurally isomorphic in that they can be either deontic or evaluative. A deontic fact is one which favours behavioural or verbal responses of certain kinds, and an evaluative fact is one where the reasons accompanying a specific fact are accompanied by an appropriate or inappropriate mode of response (Ibid: 70).
Let us have a look at Cuneo’s argument.
Cuneo says he requires to “thicken” the account of what a moral and epistemic fact is. At the moment we have hopefully established that moral and epistemic facts establish categorical reasons for agents to behave in certain ways. But we need a much more comprehensive account of moral and epistemic facts in order to securely establish the first premise of Cuneo’s Argument that if moral facts do not exist, epistemic facts do not exist.
So, Cuneo sets out to make a sketch of a conceptual framework through which we can better understand the nature of moral and epistemic facts.
1 Facts and Reasons
First, Cuneo introduces a two-fold distinction between different types of normative fact. He uses the appellation ‘normative’ here in a restricted sense to range over only moral and epistemic features. First, he introduces a distinction between general and particular normative facts. Cuneo asks us to employ the concept of a state of affairs to explicate the notion of a normative fact, in a moment he will address the distinction between states of affairs that exist, and those that obtain. In the schemata below, he will use the term ‘states of affairs’ to refer to a state of affairs that obtains. He also assumes that talk of states of affairs can be translated into different idioms that others may prefer.
In the first place, let’s say that:
X is a particular normative fact if and only if X is a state of affairs that is comprised of a particular entity’s having a simple normative property.
That Sam’s humiliating Margaret is wrong or that Sam’s belief regarding UFOs is irrational are examples of particular normative facts. Facts such as these are represented by true predicative normative claims.17
By contrast, Cuneo asks us to define general normative facts as:
X is a general normative fact if and only if X is a state of affairs that specifies that if a particular entity were instantiated, then it would have a simple normative property.
That humiliating others for mere pleasure is wrong or that believing in UFOs is unjustified are cases of putative general normative facts. Facts such as these correspond to true normative claims.18
Cuneo now proceeds to distinguish between deontic and evaluative normative facts. He asks us to suppose we use the term ‘response’ in a fairly loose way to refer to either a single type of response or a range of such responses, and also what we would also consider failures to respond). Also, we need to suppose we similarly use the term ‘agent’ to refer to a particular agent or group thereof (Ibid: 63).
In this context, deontic normative facts can be thought of disjunctively:
X is a deontic normative fact if and only if X is a state of affairs that (i) consists in an entity’s morally or epistemically favouring a response of a properly situated agent or (ii) specifies that an entity would, if instantiated, normally or epistemically favour that response of a properly situated agent.
For example, that Sam ought to apologise to Margaret and that agents should exercise care when forming and maintaining their beliefs of certain kinds are deontic normative facts (Ibid).
Evaluative normative facts can also be thought of disjunctively. Cuneo stipulates that:
X is an evaluative normative fact if and only if X is a state of affairs that (i) consists in an agent’s responding at some time (or being reliably disposed to respond) in an appropriate or inappropriate fashion to an entity that morally or epistemically favours a given response or (ii) specifies that an agent would respond at some time (or would be reliably be disposed to respond) in a appropriate or inappropriate fashion to an entity that morally or epistemically favours a given response, were it to be instantiated.
That Margaret is kind and that believing that UFOs exist is unjustified are evaluative normative facts (Ibid: 64).
Deontic and normative evaluative facts can be either particular or general in character (Ibid).
Cuneo then goes on to define what he takes a reason to be. He says:
For the present purposes, let us think of a reason as a consideration that counts in favour of a given type of response of an agent. … And when I say that a consideration ‘counts in favour of’ a given response, I mean this to cover a rather wide swath of conceptual territory. Something can count in favour of a response insofar as the thing commends a given response. But it can also count in favour of a response insofar as it demands or requires or dictates that one ought to have that response. However, to this I should add that I will not assume that something’s being demanded of one just is for it to be most favoured.
Lying just beneath the surface of this account of a reason is the thesis that reasons are relational entities of a sort. A reason ascription always has as its components the following quartet:
Consideration G → | Favours → | Response R of S | in Circumstance C
I. | II. | III. | IV.
Suppose that we call the consideration that favours the ‘ground’. And suppose we call that which is favoured the ‘response’. Reasons, as I shall think of them, are grounds that favour responses of certain kinds of properly situated agents. Let it be noted that I have claimed that it is the grounds themselves that are reasons. I have not said that reasons are the favouring relation or that they are the grounds in addition to the favouring relation (Ibid: 65-66).
Given this definition of a reason, we can now illuminate, Cuneo says, the different types of normative facts in terms of this definition of what a reason is. To begin with the most obvious case, Cuneo argues, particular deontic facts (or particular ‘norms’, if you like) are simply facts that consist in a ground’s favouring a certain type of response. If the type of response falls under a positive moral concept such as being compassionate or being just, then the fact in question is a deontic moral fact and the ground that favours this type of response is a moral reason. By contrast, particular evaluative facts are the reasons that constitute deontic facts. Cuneo also does not deny that the reverse is also the case. Cuneo says that ‘non-dispositional’ facts of this kind ‘consist in agent’s responding in an appropriate or inappropriate way to reasons’ (Ibid: 66):
For example, the fact that Sam’s behaviour toward Margaret is unjust consists in an item of behaviour’s being an inappropriate response of a certain kind to considerations that morally favour Sam’s not behaving in that fashion. Similarly, the fact that Sam’s belief about UFOs is irrational consists in Sam’s belief’s being an inappropriate response of a certain kind to considerations that epistemically favour its being formed or maintained in a certain way. ‘Dispositional’ evaluative facts, by contrast, consist in Margaret’s being reliably disposed to respond in certain types of appropriate ways to moral reasons of a certain range. Likewise, the fact that Sam is irrational consists in Sam’s being reliably disposed to respond in certain types of inappropriate fashion to reasons of certain kinds (Ibid).
Then there are general normative facts, and their combination with the above definition of what a reason is. Cuneo says general deontic facts (or ‘general’ norms) are ‘distributive functions from possible or actual instantiations of reasons to types of appropriate response. In other words, the schema for a general deontic fact is that some agent should ‘do, or be X’ when ‘doing or being Y’—Cuneo’s example is the following fact is a general deontic one: ‘that agents should exercise care when forming and maintaining beliefs of certain kinds’ (Ibid: 67).
Similarly, a general evaluative fact is a function from possible or actual instantiations of reasons to types of appropriate or inappropriate response. The putative fact that believe in UFOs is unjustified is the conditional state of affairs that, if something is a belief that UFOs exist, then it is unjustified (Ibid).
A general deontic fact is like a guideline for acting, whereas a general evaluative fact is a fact just in case some state of affairs obtains.
F The Second Similarity
I agree with Cuneo that the above definitions and argumentation establish a second similarity between epistemic facts and moral facts. Both epistemic and moral facts are supported by a common conception of reasons, and they are structurally isomorphic insofar as they both contain the same conceptions of normative facts. They both contain particular and general normative facts. They also both contain conceptions of deontic and evaluative normative facts. This structural isomorphism means if one were to reject the existence of moral facts, they would very well have to be committed to rejecting the existence of epistemic facts, because a “thick” explication of their structure and nature is absolutely identical.
The same goes for the first similarity: Moral and epistemic facts both establish the existence of some categorical reasons for agents to behave themselves in certain ways. If a moral antirealist were to take issue with moral facts establishing categorical reasons, they would also have to take issue with epistemic reasons doing the same. If they were to reject moral facts on this ground, they would have to also reject epistemic facts.
G The Third Similarity
We do not need to rehearse a great deal of Cuneo’s argumentation to establish Cuneo’s third argued similarity between moral and epistemic facts. For the time being, we only need to quote some text from his concluding remarks upon establishing the third similarity:
Suppose we use the term ‘normatively appraisable entity’ to stand for any entity that is open to moral or epistemic assessment—any entity that can bear a moral or epistemic property. The first sense in which moral and epistemic facts are similar is that they are constituted by normatively appraisable entities of the same types. Now suppose we use the term ‘mode of response’ to refer to the types of response a reason can favour, such as the formation of propositional attitudes, the formation of motivational states, the implementation of action plans, and so on. And suppose we assume that moral and epistemic reasons are such that, for each type of reason, there is a class consisting in all and only the modes of response reasons of that type favour. Call the first classes of response ‘the moral set’, and the second ‘the epistemic set’. Then we can say that the second sense in which moral and epistemic reasons are similar is that there is considerable overlap between the members of the moral and epistemic sets. Indeed, in light of the fact that it is difficult to identify some mode of response favoured by a moral and not epistemic reasons or vice versa, we are arguably entitled to a stronger conclusion than this: namely, that the members of the moral and epistemic sets are identical. It follows that deontic and evaluative moral and epistemic facts consist in (or indicate) moral and epistemic reasons that favour identical modes of response (Ibid: 76).
We saw above in Cuneo’s schemata of a reason ascription that the first stage of the ascription was ‘Consideration G’, the ‘ground’ of the ascription, which was the ‘reason’ for a behavioural response to a situation. Cuneo above argues rightly that this ‘ground’, this ‘reason’, is identical to either an epistemic or moral fact. It turns out that not only do moral and epistemic facts rely on the same conception of what a ground of a reason ascription is, they also rely on the same definition of the third stage of the reason ascription. This is the ‘Response R of S’ stage.
It turns out that epistemic and moral facts rely on the same behavioural responses to reasons. This is the third similarity between epistemic and moral facts. Epistemic and moral facts range over the same kind of normatively appraisable entities. This means that every type of entity which can possess epistemic properties can also possess moral properties. The entities Cuneo discusses in this section are agents, but we could also talk about books, weapons, speeches, government policies, tax returns, classroom lessons, offensives by guerrilla fighters in the mountains, decisions by the DMV, etc, in the exact same way. Each of these example entities can have moral epistemic properties. Each of the behavioural responses an agent could make to any of these entities is the exact same, no matter if it is a response that relies on moral or epistemic reasons.
The same goes above for the second stage of the reason ascription process in Cuneo’s schemata. This is the ‘favouring’ relation. The deontic and evaluative normativity of epistemic and moral facts is completely structurally isomorphic. They share an identical structure. Epistemic and moral facts favour the exact same mode of response to their ‘ground’ reason in the exact same way. Apart from the fact that epistemic facts feature a different content platitude in describing their nature, epistemic facts are more or less identical to moral facts. The content platitude of an epistemic fact is the only difference between it and a moral fact.
H The Fourth Similarity
The fourth similarity between moral and epistemic facts is that they are (i) necessarily coextensive; and (ii) there is no way to (ontologically, at least) disentangle their different dimensions from one another.
This is the reasoning. Frequently, and in some contexts most of the time, epistemic and moral facts entail each other. As Cuneo says (Ibid: 80) some failings are necessarily both epistemic and moral failings. ‘Think of failing to treat the testimony of another with sufficient care and attention’ (Ibid).
I, like Cuneo, subscribe to a broadly a Aristotelian view of meta-ethics. I will discuss this position in great detail in the second chapter of John McDowell’s philosophy, his metaphysical argument. Aristotelian meta-ethics is popularly called ‘virtue ethics’, and it holds that quite a lot of the time moral reasons depend on epistemic reasons, that moral facts have an epistemic dimension. Further, although we spoke of the content platitudes of epistemic facts as being constituted only by platitudes that spoke of representation, it may very well be the case that both moral and epistemic facts have intertwined content platitudes describing and outlining their nature.
In this way both moral and epistemic facts are concerned to promote human well-being by honouring, protecting, and promoting humanity, as well as advancing human well-being. Cuneo speaks of moral and epistemic facts as forming a normative web, constituting our entire universe of human experience and action, both theoretical and practical. This is the reason why the title of his book takes the name of this metaphor. Moral and epistemic realism form a web of interrelated, mutually supportive and mutually entailing facts which build up and give an ontology to our commonsensical picture of our world.
I can provide a thought-experiment of my own as an example to illustrate the argument I am trying to make. Suppose Sam is the top sales manager of a company retailing some commodity, say pots and pans. This sales manager has been parachuted into their position due to nepotism, and they are woefully inexperienced to perform such a senior role. After a few weeks, Sam understands he has no idea how to discharge his role, but he really enjoys the salary and fringe benefits, so he decides to ignore the performance of the sales managers below him, and allows them to have autonomy over decision-making in the field. As a consequence, the company’s sales performance plummets. But Sam decided before this state of affairs came about that he wouldn’t bother himself with finding out about this, because he considered it not his fault.
In this thought experiment, Sam abrogates his responsibilities for his retail company and puts everyone’s jobs in danger. The company may go under. But Sam chooses to not pay attention to the poor performance of the company, so he never finds out until the very last moment that he company is in a bad financial state. He doesn’t know that the company is doing badly. He has no knowledge of this. He may have made the assumption to willfully close his eyes to the truth because he has worked under many incompetent senior managers for whom sales performance results ended up being good anyway.
There is a reason here that counts in favour of Sam’s responding with diligence, attention, and carefulness about managing the retail company’s sales. That reason is the sales performance of the company is poor. His deliberate ignorance of the truth is not just an epistemic demerit: he hasn’t been careful at all about the results of his lack of efforts; his response to this reason is also a moral demerit: he has been reckless and negligent in the performance of his duties, and is in danger putting many people in economic harm. If he had not been negligent and reckless, he would know about the company’s sales performance. His moral demerit is the cause of his epistemic demerit.
The point of this thought experiment is that Sam’s behaviour is not just morally reprehensible, but also epistemically demeritous. He picked and chose the information he has decided to bring to his attention. Let’s assume that he did this because he was arrogant and bred in a wealthy family who taught him to believe that he was born to rule over people.
Law reports are replete with examples of people in civil negligence cases willfully closing their eyes to the truth about dangers to other people. This is not just a moral failing but an epistemic failing.
This chapter has been concerned to argue, following Terence Cuneo, that moral and epistemic facts are so similar that to reject the existence of moral facts would force one to reject the existence of epistemic facts. I argue that the four different types of similarity between moral and epistemic facts prove that they are so similar that to reject one would be to reject the other. Whatever antirealists find objectionable about moral facts they would also have to find objectionable about epistemic facts. Both instantiate some categorical reasons for behaving in certain ways. Both share the same normative structure. Both favour the same kinds of behaviour: moral behaviour is not in any way different from rational epistemic behaviour. Both mutually depend on and support one-another in building up a comprehensive ontological explanation for our realist-seeming commonsensical everyday discourse.
Given our definitions of what we take the paradigmatic cases of moral realism and epistemic realism to be, it necessarily follows that to reject the existence of moral facts would be to commit oneself to rejecting the existence of epistemic facts.
Our task in the next chapter is to show that epistemic facts do irreducibly exist. Doing this will prove that moral realism is true, which will in turn prove that bald naturalism must be false, and that if we take it that there are good reasons to be naturalists, we must turn to a different sort of naturalism.
Richard Hamilton, ‘The Concept of Health: Beyond Normativism and Naturalism’ (2010) 16(2) Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 323.
John McDowell, Mind and World (Harvard University Press, 1996).
Mario De Caro and David Macarthur, ‘Introduction: The Nature of Naturalism’ in Mario De Caro and David Macarthur (eds), Naturalism in Question (Harvard University Press, 2004) 1.
Mario de Caro and David Macarthur, ‘Introduction: Science, Naturalism, and the Problem of Normativity’ in Mario de Caro and David Macarthur (eds), Naturalism and Normativity (Columbia University Press, 2010) 1.
Terence Cuneo, The Normative Web (Oxford University Press, 1st ed, 2007).
John McDowell, ‘Two Sorts of Naturalism’ in Mind, Value, and Reality (Harvard University Press, 1998) 167.