How much do moral philosophers disagree?

At the end of this month, I am due to respond to
Brian Leiter's essay
"Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement in Nietzsche",
on the National Humanities Center's web site On the Human.
In this essay, Leiter develops a Nietzsche-inspired argument, according to which
moral scepticism is strongly supported by the kind of
moral disagreement that exists among moral philosophers.

This made me wonder, To what extent do moral philosophers disagree about
moral questions? Of course, they disagree about the abstract foundational
principles

of ethics: Aristotelians, Kantians, consequentialists, and the like, all
have different answers to these foundational questions. But to what extent
do they disagree in their moral verdicts on concrete cases or types of case?

I suspect that on several issues that are the focus of fierce
moral controversies today — such as homosexuality and the death penalty —
there is significantly less disagreement among contemporary philosophers
than in the population as a whole. Indeed, I tentatively suggest, the
historical record indicates that philosophers have been pushed towards the
liberal view on these issues by some fundamental features of philosophy itself.

1.  On sexual ethics, a significant part of the world's population believes
that homosexual behaviour is seriously wrong. Hardly any philosophers
believe this today. In particular, the overwhelming majority of the contemporary adherents of every
major philosophical tradition in ethics — Aristotelians, Humeans, Kantians, and
consequentialists — all agree about this.

Moreover, on this issue, philosophers were pioneers. Until the 20th
century, all societies in which forms of Christianity were the dominant religion
harshly condemned homosexual behaviour.
Jeremy Bentham's essay on Paederasty
(composed around 1785) seems
to have been
the first considered argument for homosexual law reform ever written.
In the mid-20th century, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and H. L. A. Hart all
played a significant role in the campaign for decriminalizing homosexual
behaviour. By now, the liberal view of sexual ethics seems to be the view
of the vast majority of philosophers.

I speculate that philosophy itself helped to push philosophers to this view.
Philosophy makes it hard to avoid the questions, "What harm does
homosexual behaviour do? What exactly is bad about it?" It also encourages
scepticism about attempted answers to these questions. So it is not surprising
that among philosophers, the belief that homosexual behaviour is wrong has
given way to what J. S. Mill called "the dissolving force of analysis."


2.
Something similar, I suspect, is true of the death penalty. Until fairly
recently, almost all human societies made use of the death penalty. But now, I
suspect, the great majority of philosophers oppose it — including
Aristotelians like Antony Duff, Kantians like Allen Wood, and consequentialists
like Philip Pettit.

Moreover, as in the case of the case of sexual ethics, it was a philosopher —
in this case, Cesare Beccaria, in
On Crimes and Punishments (1764) — who led the way. One of the most
determined opponents of the death penalty in academia today is the philosopher
Hugo Bedau.

Here again philosophy has led philosophers to ask, "What exactly is good about executing convicted criminals? Is this good really of the right kind to outweigh the prima facie
reason against intentionally killing human beings who no longer pose any
imminent threat?" Philosophy also encourages scepticism about many attempted answers to the question. So I suspect that philosophy has pushed many
philosophers towards opposing the death penalty.


3.
Admittedly, there may be more
disagreement among philosophers on some other concrete issues. There is perhaps slightly more disagreement
about abortion and assisted suicide than about homosexuality and the death penalty. There is considerable disagreement among philosophers about the moral issue that divides vegetarians and carnivores. But overall, I doubt that one can convincingly
argue that on these concrete questions (as opposed to the more foundational
questions that divide Aristotelians, Kantians, and consequentialists, et al.),
there is more extensive disagreement among philosophers than among the general
population.

17 Replies to “How much do moral philosophers disagree?

  1. One worry about this line is the extent to which the agreement among philosophers may be the result of cultural pressures. As you mention, philosophers are likely to belong to a liberal vanguard. But it’s plausible to consider this vanguard itself as a subculture, and one that includes mostly non-philosophers. Perhaps philosophers are simply rationalizing the prevailing opinions of their dominant sub-culture. That philosophers’ agreed-upon opinions don’t reflect the state of their wider culture doesn’t seem to matter.
    We’re left with a bit of a chicken-egg problem. And I don’t think it’s enough to point out that some the first considered cases of a moral issue came from philosophers. After all, philosophers are more likely to be the first to offer some considered case on just about every position. This isn’t strong evidence for prior AGREEMENT among philosophers at large. The crucial question is whether agreement among philosophers specifically has outpaced agreement among educated liberals (or whatever you ascribe as their sub-culture) generally.

  2. Sean —
    I think you’re misreading me. I wasn’t arguing that “agreement among philosophers has outpaced agreement among educated liberals”, as you put it. My main point was just that there seems to be somewhat less disagreement among philosophers about these concrete moral questions than among the population at large.
    You’re right that a lot of agreement on moral issues, among philosophers as well as among everyone else, is explained by cultural pressures. But this obviously does not undermine my main point (that there is slightly less disagreement among philosophers about these concrete moral questions than among other similar-sized randomly-selected subsets of the population).
    It also doesn’t undermine my subsidiary point, that philosophy itself may have “pushed” some philosophers towards the liberal view on some of these questions. Philosophy can “push” someone “towards” a view without being the only factor that explains their holding the view in question.
    I wasn’t appealing to the example of philosophers who were in the vanguard of a changing climate of moral opinion — like Bentham on homosexuality, and Beccaria on the death penalty — in order to show that philosophers agree. Far from it! (After all, we all know that Bentham’s view of homosexuality and Beccaria’s view of the death penalty were rejected by many other philosophers of the same period — including most obviously Kant.) I was only appealing to this example to give some (modest) support to my subsidiary suggestion that philosophy itself might have helped to push some people towards the liberal view on these questions.

  3. I saw Dr. Leiter present a version of this paper at McMaster University, and in that incarnation at least he seemed to focus on metaethical disagreement, rather than disagreement in individual cases. The fact that Kantians and Utilitarians tend to converge on particular judgments doesn’t change the fact that the justifications for these judgments are wildly divergent, and that no amount of good faith discussion or argument seems to shift avowed proponents of one camp to another. I think he took this to suggest that, whatever is causing the convergence on individual judgments, it isn’t “moral facts” as captured in any ethical tradition, because we see no convergence on the higher order questions that we might expect if moral facts were doing the work.

  4. Perhaps we need to know more about why Leiter thinks that disagreement amongst moral philosophers is evidence for scepticism. Amongst those who agree about the moral issues, there is also disagreement about empirical issues that are related to particular moral questions; for example, about the effectiveness of deterrence in criminal justice policy or the most significant cause of poverty in a society. But, obviously enough, these disagreements are not evidence for scepticism about there being a right answer about the effectiveness of deterrence or about there being a most significant cause of poverty in a society.
    A great deal of apparently moral disagreement that we find amongst non-philosophers is explained by empirical disagreement rather than by disagreement about what is morally significant in itself. Philosophers, I suspect, might disagree more than non-philosophers given agreement about the empirical issues. For example, I suspect that the vast majority of non-philosophers would think it permissible to impose the death penalty on murderers if they were convinced that it would have a significant impact on the murder rate and execution of innocents was very unlikely to occur. There is much more disagreement amongst philosophers of punishment about this.
    In moral philosophy we might also disagree about the criteria of success of a moral theory – for example, the extent to which the success of a theory depends on its ability to explain considered judgements about hypothetical cases. Perhaps this kind of disagreement would be more troubling and might be treated as evidence of scepticism. But if you are right that philosophers of different stripes tend to converge on particular judgements indicate that there is less disagreement about this matter: each treats the ability of a theory to explain considered judgements about particular issues as a criterion of success.

  5. Thanks for clarifying, Ralph. I may still misunderstand you, but I’d like to try again.
    I’m not sure there’s somewhat less disagreement among moral philosophers than there is among the population at large. Yes, there are issues (like homosexuality) where philosophers mostly agree and the general public doesn’t. But as you note, there are also concrete issues (like vegetarianism) in which the general public mostly agrees but moral philosophers don’t.
    Here you claim that “I doubt that one can convincingly argue that on these concrete questions… there is more extensive disagreement among philosophers than among the general population.” I’m not sure why you think this, and this seems like the heart of the issue.
    So my above comment was an attempt to tell a story explaining how, while there may be different sets of concrete issues that philosophers and the public agree on, the set for philosophers might be roughly as large as the set for the public. My story suggests that philosophers might simply belong to a sub-culture with different norms, not a sub-culture that is somehow capable of reaching consensus more often than general society.
    In general, I find it non-obvious that philosophers will likely agree on just about any set of issues more often than the population at large. I exaggerate a bit here, but still, philosophers are a cantankerous lot.

  6. I think Ralph is right that moral disagreement on concrete issues is less in philosophical circles than in the population at large.
    I think Sean is right that the explanation for this may very well be non-rational. Philosophers (especially the influential opinion-drivers) are overwhelmingly white, male, well-educated, middle-aged or older, middle-class, insulated from market pressures in their jobs, politically liberal, secular in outlook, and to some extent, dwellers in relatively wealthy North Atlantic urban centers. It’s not exactly a cross-section of the population. The interesting test would be whether disagreement among philosophers on these issues is less than disagreement among the non-philosophers who are similar: the professional class of the American north-east seaboard, for example. I suspect that there is not much difference but it’s an empirical question.
    Ralph’s point that philosophy encourages skepticism about potential harms is interesting. It seems right about questions of homosexuality and the death penalty. If this were the whole story, you would think that philosophers would in general be morally laissez-faire. However I suspect that philosophers are somewhat more sensitive than the population as a whole to issues of discrimination and sexual harassment, and more inclined to condemn such behaviors, without being skeptical about harms.
    I think Benjamin’s point is also good, namely that Leiter may not have such relatively concrete judgments in mind at all, but more meta-level judgments. On those issues, philosophers deeply disagree and the general population has, I think, no consistent considered opinion.

  7. I agree with Ralph that there is considerably more agreement amongst philosophers on concrete moral issues than amongst the general population. There is considerable, although far from complete, convergence. This convergence might be due to factors that have nothing to do with philosophical reflection, or it might be, at least in part, because philosophical reflection actually leads one towards the truth (or, at least, to have better views) on a range of issues. I am inclined to favour the second hypothesis. In any case, both hypotheses need to be on the table; sometimes I think that it is assumed that just raising the possibility of non-philosophical factors is enough to provide people with justification for ignoring the alternative hypothesis (I am reminded of Stich on Gettier intuitions etc.).
    On the point about supposed massive disagreement amongst metaethicists: it is true that there continues to be disagreement between realists and anti-realists. However, just as with normative ethics, the fact that there is an obvious range of mutually exclusive theories, shouldn’t lead one to ignore areas of concrete convergence. In the case of metaethics, one area of convergence stands out very clearly: pretty much all moral anti-realists (who actually work on the topic) these days want to be able to speak of moral truth and moral knowledge (or ‘knowledge’). Realism has become a default in a certain limited way: the anti-realist doesn’t go the way of Ayer (say), but instead adopts a kind of quasi-realism or fictionalism or irrealism that allows her to say, sure torturing people for fun is wrong, and it’s true (or it is legitimate to believe the fiction etc.) that torturing people for fun is wrong, and I’d like to have a story as to how we know it’s wrong (or are warranted in our make-believe).

  8. Hi,
    I am commenting on Brian’s paper too. Like some others here, I also took him to be arguing from the apparently intractable disagreement amongst philosophers on foundational principles as opposed to concrete cases. So although the point about greater agreement on first-order questions than non-philosophers and so on is interesting in its own right and not without likely dialectical traction, broadly speaking, in the broader debate about realism, I wasn’t sure precisely how it engaged with what Brian took to be his main point.

  9. PS It also wasn’t meta-ethical disagreement that Leiter emphasized, so much as disagreement about abstract principles of first-order normative ethics, just to be clear (though meta-ethical disagreement came up later in his paper, in reply to an objection – it wasn’t the main initial point).

  10. Benjamin Wald:
    “in that incarnation at least he seemed to focus on metaethical disagreement, rather than disagreement in individual cases. The fact that Kantians and Utilitarians tend to converge on particular judgments doesn’t change the fact that the justifications for these judgments are wildly divergent, and that no amount of good faith discussion or argument seems to shift avowed proponents of one camp to another.”
    Mike Ridge:
    “I also took him to be arguing from the apparently intractable disagreement amongst philosophers on foundational principles as opposed to concrete cases. So although the point about greater agreement on first-order questions than non-philosophers and so on is interesting in its own right and not without likely dialectical traction, broadly speaking, in the broader debate about realism, I wasn’t sure precisely how it engaged with what Brian took to be his main point.”
    If these considerations count towards skepticism about ethics, then it seems to me that they should count towards skepticism about perceptual beliefs too.
    When considering particular concrete cases, philosophers tend to agree about what counts as a justified perceptual belief and what doesn’t. But when considering how perceptual beliefs are justified and things like that, philosophers radically disagree.
    That may be a reason to endorse skepticism about particular epistemological theories. But it is not a reason to endorse skepticism about particular concrete judgments about perceptual beliefs.
    Similarly, disagreement among moral philosophers about theoretical issues in ethics, one might think, is not a reason to endorse skepticism about specific concrete moral judgments provided that there is agreement about those concrete moral judgments.

  11. Anon:
    Just to be clear, I wasn’t arguing that Brian’s version of the argument from disagreement succeeds; I was just trying to clarify the dialectic. I’ll leave it to Brian himself to respond to your counter.

  12. Mike,
    OK. Thanks for clarifying. Looking back at your earlier comments I now see your point:
    “…greater agreement on first-order questions than non-philosophers and so on is interesting in its own right and not without likely dialectical traction…”

  13. I thought that everyone doing normative ethics was in the end climbing the same mountain…

  14. “To what extent do moral philosophers disagree about moral questions? […] to what extent do they disagree in their moral verdicts on concrete cases or types of case?”
    The methodology here is suspect. We need not only to look at (dis)agreements about the standard controversies (e.g., abortion, death penalty), but how much agreement there is on a range of other topics. I don’t think it’s easy to measure these things, but there seems to be a considerable amount of agreement on a host of matters, especially the ones we don’t think or talk much about (because there is no controversy about them!). For instance, there is no heated debate about whether it is ever permissible to walk into a nursery school and to slaughter the children there. And there is not much debate about whether it is wrong intentionally to kill an innocent person (or creature with moral standing). The controversy regarding the last has to do with whether a general claim or principle of this sort is defeasible or not and under what conditions?
    There is less agreement about abortion or the death penalty amongst philosophers than one might think, even if we are a boringly rather p.c. bunch. But our attitudes towards these controversies are not what we need to look at in order to gather evidence for the question that has been posed. Rather we need to see how much agreement there is relative to the disagreement that exists. There may be a lot, whatever we think about the controversies that are taken up in our courses, the ones with ‘controversies’ or ‘issues’ in the title.

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