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Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Paulina Sliwa’s “Moral Understanding as Knowing Right from Wrong,” with a critical précis by Kieran Setiya

Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Paulina Sliwa‘s “Moral Understanding as Knowing Right from Wrong.” The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics and is available through open access here. Kieran Setiya has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!

Précis by Kieran Setiya:

Is there a phenomenon of moral understanding that is importantly distinct from moral knowledge? Non-reductionists say yes. In this impressively clear, creative, and perceptive essay, Paulina Sliwa argues that the answer is no. Moral understanding is knowing right from wrong.

Sliwa’s primary interlocutor is Alison Hills, who has made a powerful case for non-reductionism. I won’t defend Hills’ view specifically, but in this summary, I will explain why I am not convinced by Sliwa’s arguments. In doing so, I will ignore many points on which I am persuaded, as when she protests against over-intellectualized accounts of moral understanding in the final sections of her paper.

Sliwa begins with a helpful distinction between particular instances of moral understanding, as when someone understands why pp being a moral proposition – and what she calls ‘the capacity of moral understanding’, which is the capacity to understand why p, for some range or category of moral propositions. I will focus on particular instances of moral understanding. And I will begin by conceding that knowledge is necessary for understanding. As Sliwa argues in section 3, you can’t understand why p without knowing why p.

In section 4, which is the heart of her discussion, Sliwa turns to the question of sufficiency. Dismissing the simple view on which an agent understands why p if and only if she knows why p, she proposes:

Moral Understanding as Sufficient Moral Knowledge: An agent understands why p if and only if she has a sufficient amount of knowledge why p.

You may ask: what does she mean by ‘amount of knowledge’? We will get to that. You may also ask: what counts as ‘sufficient’? Answer: this is context-sensitive, but in general, you need to know more for us to say that you understand why p than you do for us to make a bare attribution of knowledge why.

The principal challenge to Moral Understanding as Sufficient Moral Knowledge is moral knowledge acquired by testimony. In Hills’ example, Mary has thought a lot about moral vegetarianism. She tells Eleanor that it is wrong to eat meat because modern animal farming is cruel. Eleanor accepts what Mary says and comes to know both that and why it is wrong to eat meat. If she takes this on trust, however, there is no reason to suppose that Eleanor understands why eating meat is wrong.

Sliwa does not object to this description of the case. (Some doubt that moral knowledge can be conveyed by testimony. Sliwa does not seem to be among them, and I will follow suit.) She argues instead that the description is consistent with her view. On the natural way of imagining the case, Eleanor knows much less than Mary about why it is wrong to eat meat, about why it is cruel, how cruel it is, how much suffering is involved, how animals are kept and slaughtered, and so on. That is why Mary counts as understanding why but Eleanor doesn’t.

Sliwa’s treatment of this case is quite persuasive. It brings out how she thinks about degrees of knowledge. On her general conception of propositional knowledge, to know that p is ‘to discriminate among various ways the world might be and to correctly locate the actual world on the right side of the divide’. How much you know is a function of how finely you discriminate possibilities. What does that mean? In the particular case, what matters is that Mary can discriminate between various ways in which modern animal farming might be cruel and identify which ones obtain. Eleanor can’t. Her knowledge of the cruelty of modern animal farming is coarse-grained.

This makes sense to me, but I wonder how far it goes. To begin with a clarification: I take it that what matters is not merely the extent to which one can discriminate possibilities but the extent to which one can make discriminations that have moral significance. The fact that Mary knows which day of the week the animals are slaughtered or the make of the machine in a slaughterhouse: this is irrelevant, since it makes no moral difference. In contrast, it makes a moral difference, at least potentially, how much pain animals suffer on factory farms, how rich their psychology is, and how easy it would be to reduce their suffering. Mary’s knowledge of these facts is relevant to her moral understanding.

If what matters is the extent to which one can make discriminations that have moral significance, there is a question of how to generalize Sliwa’s response to Hills. Consider a different case of moral knowledge by testimony.

A philosopher of science who knows little about ethics has a meeting with Frances Kamm. Kamm explains that, in a certain complicated trolley case, it is wrong to push the switch that will cause one death, preventing five. The philosopher of science asks why. Kamm cites the Principle of Quintuple Effect, which states that it is wrong to kill one innocent person to save five if and only if … and here she gives an intricate description of causal and other relations that obtain between actions, omissions, deaths, threats, means, side-effects, intentions, beliefs, etc. The philosopher of science comes to know by testimony that it is wrong to push the switch in the complicated case, and he knows exactly why. He can discriminate worlds in which Kamm’s intricate description holds from ones in which it doesn’t as well as anyone ever could. But if he takes all this on trust, can’t we protest that he does not understand why it is wrong to push the button? If so, it is hard to see how Sliwa’s strategy could help.

There are several things Sliwa could say at this point. Perhaps the strategy that worked for the original case of Mary and Eleanor has limitations. She need not contend that it is fully general. All that she is committed to is that those who lack understanding lack relevant moral knowledge. For instance, she might argue, the philosopher of science does not know why the property captured by Kamm’s intricate description is morally significant.

Is this what Sliwa has in mind? It has a certain plausibility, but it has limitations, too. For one thing, some philosophers will deny that there is anything more to know about why the property in question matters in the way it does. We may have reached moral bedrock. What is more,  I doubt that Sliwa can avoid the basic dilemma. If someone fails to understand why p because they fail to discriminate possibilities finely enough, or for some other reason alleged to be consistent with Sliwa’s view, we can ask: is there a proposition, q, such that learning q, however difficult that might be, would give them what they are missing? If not, moral understanding cannot be reduced to moral knowledge. If so, we can stipulate that they learn q by testimony, taking it on trust, and then I am inclined to agree with Hills, that they still lack moral understanding. No amount of testimonial knowledge can provide it.

Sliwa may protest that this rather abstract dilemma begs the question. One way to make progress is to look at an alternative to Sliwa’s view, which she goes on to consider:

Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge: An agent understands why p if and only if she knows why p by inference from its grounds, e.g. by inferring why an act is wrong from its wrong-making features.

Sliwa makes two objections. First, inference of this kind is not sufficient for moral understanding. Consider Yasmin, who infers that eating meat is wrong from a vague memory of a documentary she heard on the radio, which mentioned that modern animal farming is cruel. Although Yasmin knows why it is wrong to eat meat by inference from a fact that makes it wrong, she does not understand why it is wrong to eat meat in that way that Mary does.

This description of the case seems right, but it is consistent with Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge. That is because, while Yasmin may know that it is wrong to eat meat by inference from one of its grounds, her inference is not sensitive to the whole array of facts that bear on the wrongness of eating meat: how much pain animals suffer on factory farms, how rich their psychology is, and how easy it would be to reduce their suffering. These facts make a difference to how strong her inference is and how strong its conclusion should be. Like Moral Understanding as Sufficient Moral Knowledge, Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge suggests that moral understanding comes by degree, depending, for instance, on how far one’s inference takes in the wrong-making features of an act.

Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge derives support from a variation on Kamm and the philosopher of science. Here we stipulate that the grounds of the moral conclusion are fully specified: Kamm’s biconditional is as detailed as can be. If the philosopher of science is able to infer directly from Kamm’s description to her verdict on the case, without further testimony, I would think he does understand why it is wrong to push the button, though he has no additional knowledge why.

Sliwa’s second objection is that inference of the relevant kind is not necessary for moral understanding. She describes Samir, who knows which factors are relevant to a moral question but needs help in weighing them. He takes advice from a trusted friend, who tells him which factor is more significant, and comes to know what he should do and why. Sliwa claims that Samir has moral understanding, despite the fact that it is not based on his own moral inference.

I think the case is under-described. It indicates a subtle but vital distinction between epistemic achievements that are enabled by testimony, on the one hand, and second-hand knowledge, knowledge that rests on and is justified by testimony, on the other.

In one version of the case, Samir learns to weigh the factors properly himself: he learns to make the right inference. It doesn’t matter that he learns this by listening to his advisor’s testimony.  The causal origins of his knowledge are irrelevant to its status as inferential, in the sense that matters to Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge. That is why he has moral understanding. In another version of the case, Samir is still reliant on testimony. His knowledge rests on and is justified by (or through) his advisor’s knowledge. Then Samir lacks moral understanding, as Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge predicts.

I don’t mean to defend Moral Understanding as Inferential Knowledge. The distinction that matters is, I believe, more general that the distinction between inferential and testimonial knowledge. It is the distinction between first-hand and second-hand knowledge, knowing for oneself, and knowing by trusting another. Without this distinction, we cannot make sense of a central task of moral education, which is teaching others to know things for themselves.

Philosophers sometimes write as if explicit moral education were a matter of giving moral testimony. I think that is profoundly wrong. It is true that explicit moral education, as when I talk to my son about racism or sexism, involves a lot of testimony. Much of what I say about the non-moral facts he can only take on trust. But if, at the end of the day, his moral knowledge is merely testimonial, I have failed. At best, the process of moral education is radically incomplete. What I want is for him is to see for himself what is wrong with racism and sexism, to make the inferences himself, or where the knowledge in question is non-inferential – as perhaps, when he comes to know the axiom that all human beings have fundamental rights – I do not want his knowledge to be testimonial, but his own. He should not believe that human beings have rights on the basis of his trust in me, but on his own authority.

Let me step back from this debate to ask a wider question. I have been suggesting that, while she is right to focus on depth of knowledge in explaining moral understanding, Sliwa omits a further aspect: the contrast between knowing first- and second-hand. There are two issues here. One is whether moral understanding requires first-hand knowledge. The second is whether, even if it doesn’t, we should admit the existence and importance of first-hand knowledge as a topic for moral philosophy.

These issues raise a cluster of related questions for Sliwa, with which I will close. I am interested in Sliwa’s arguments for reductionism, but I am also interested in why it matters to her that reductionism is true. What is at stake in her refusal to countenance moral understanding as a phenomenon distinct from knowing right from wrong? Does she admit the existence of first-hand knowledge as a distinctive phenomenon, but deny that it is required for moral understanding? Or does she reject its existence altogether? If she rejects its existence, how does she think about the enterprise of moral education, as in the difficult conversations I have with my son?

(Thanks to the SHAPE reading group at MIT for a wonderful discussion of Sliwa’s essay, on which I have extensively drawn, to Brad Skow for helpful comments, and to Paulina Sliwa for writing such a lucid and provocative piece.)

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10 Responses to Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Paulina Sliwa’s “Moral Understanding as Knowing Right from Wrong,” with a critical précis by Kieran Setiya

  1. Paulina Sliwa says:

    Many thanks to PEA soup for hosting this discussion and to Kieran for such an excellent, thoughtful précis. Kieran raises a number of questions about my discussion of moral testimony and the relationship between testimony and understanding.

    Are amounts of knowledge enough to explain asymmetries in attributing understanding?

    Kieran first raises a worry about my treatment of Mary and Eleanor. There I claim that asymmetries in attributions of understanding track asymmetries in how much we take the two agents to know. Thus, Eleanor lacks moral understanding of why we should not eat meat because she knows a lot less than Mary. Kieran worries whether this will work for all cases and offers the story of the Philosopher of Science talking to deferring to Frances Kamm as a potential counterexample.

    Let’s remind ourselves. For the Philosopher of Science to know why pushing the button is wrong, she needs to have a sufficient amount of knowledge of why it’s wrong. How much depends on context. It’s reasonable to expect that the standard for sufficiency here is set by Frances Kamm herself: she needs to know (roughly) as much as Kamm does in order to count as having the requisite understanding.

    Let’s grant that we are hesitant to ascribe moral understanding of why pushing the button is wrong to the Philosopher of Science. I think there are a number of explanations that the reductionist can point to.

    1. As Setiya himself notes, we may think that there is still some crucial knowledge that Kamm has but the Philosopher of Science lacks: what is so special about this particular combination of acts, omissions, causal influences, etc. We expect Kamm to have a general theory here, one that the Philosopher of Science has not been told. After all, Kamm has spent years and years thinking about these various morally relevant features. Thus, we may take the Philosopher of Science to lack the relevant instance of understanding because, while she knows why it’s wrong to push the button in this particular case, she lacks knowledge of the theory that gives rise to this particular verdict in this instance. So, it is the asymmetry of what is known that guides our intuitive attributions of instances of understanding here.

    2. I suspect there’s a second factor at play here. It’s not clear to me (with all due respect!) that we are all that happy to attribute moral understanding to Kamm in this case, either. And I suspect that this is because we have doubts about whether both of them have the requisite knowledge. We may have lingering doubts over whether it really is wrong to push the switch or we may be suspicious of the moral casuistry that is involved in the explanation. But knowledge is necessary for understanding. Thus, insofar as we doubt that Kamm or the Philosopher of Science have the relevant knowledge of why it’s wrong to push the button, of course we will hesitate to ascribe moral understanding to either.

    On Reductionism and Testimony
    Kieran worries that by taking route (1), I will face a general problem
    “We can ask: is there a proposition, q, such that learning q, however difficult that might be, would give them what they are missing? If not, moral understanding cannot be reduced to moral knowledge. If so, we can stipulate that they learn q by testimony, taking it on trust, and then I am inclined to agree with Hills, that they still lack moral understanding. No amount of testimonial knowledge can provide it.”

    Let me be clear: I do think that any time agents A and B differ in their moral understanding, there is some proposition q that one of them knows and the other one lacks. If A came to know that q, she would come to have the relevant moral understanding.

    But it does not follow that A can learn q by testimony alone. Reductionism is not committed to the view that, for any proposition q, anyone can always learn that q by testimony – much less from a single testimonial interaction. Some propositions may not be communicable with the linguistic resources we have. (I can know that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s voice has a particular timbre without being able to tell you exactly what it is. Our vocabulary may not be fine-grained enough.) Or q may be simply too complex and rich to be communicable in any reasonable or finite amount of time.

    So the fact that there may be cases in which intuitively testimony alone does not seem sufficient to transmit the requisite understanding is not a worry for the reductionist: it simply reflects the fact that there are limits on what and how much knowledge can be plausibly transmitted in testimonial interactions. Because of this, I also do not think that the non-reductionist is entitled to simply stipulate that A learns q by testimony and then assert that she still lacks understanding.

    On the distinction between “enabling” and “transmitting” knowledge.
    Kieran suggests that we should distinguish between two roles that testimony can play: enabling knowledge or transmitting knowledge, and consequently between two types of knowledge: first- and second-hand. He wonders whether the notion of first-hand knowledge couldn’t play a central role in an account of moral understanding, and more widely in moral philosophy.

    I can see why this *looks* like an attractive distinction to draw. (In fact, a much earlier draft of this paper tried to make sense of moral understanding in terms of such a distinction.) But I have come to think that it is much less robust than it might seem. In general, moral testimony (but also non-moral testimony) both enables and transmits at once and the two are inextricably linked.

    To bring this out, let us start with the nonmoral case first, and one that seems clearly in the camp of “enabling”. “I don’t see anything!” I tell my friend while I’m squinting into the microscope. “Try turning the dial to adjust,” my friend tells me. In this case, I acquire some knowledge about how to operate the microscope. This knowledge enables me to know something else first-hand: what’s on the slide.

    But things get murky very quickly, even in the nonmoral case. Suppose I ask you “Where are my keys?” You respond: “I saw them on the table a moment ago; have a look there”. I turn to the table and there they are. Is your testimony here enabling or transmitting? It’s both. It enabled me to gain perceptual knowledge of where my keys are because it gave me knowledge of where they are. But even before looking I already knew the keys were on the table and I presumably did not lose that knowledge by looking. Nor does your testimony cease to play a justificatory role for believing that the keys are on the table even once I have seen them myself. After all, if someone challenges my eye sight, I can still point to your testimony to justify my belief.

    And they get still murkier. Consider a case of moral testimony. I comment to you on the behaviour of a colleague in a meeting: “That was a prime example of being a bully.” Is my testimony here enabling or transmitting? Again, I think the answer is that it’s both. You acquire knowledge that this behaviour was bullying. But at the same time, you also learn something about the moral concept “bullying”: namely that it applies to this behaviour, that this is an instance of it. And this in turn enables you to categorise the behaviour as bullying. Transmission and enabling generally go hand-in-hand: by learning that an act is unjust/kind/bullying/generous, you come to both know that it is so as well as coming to know about the relevant concepts.

    And so, I do not hold out much hope that we can draw a principled distinction between transmitting and enabling or between first- and second-order knowledge. Nor does this strike me as a valuable enterprise. Because in the end what matters is what you know, not how you know it. It’s knowing that p that enables you to do certain things (draw inferences, catch the thief, spot the misogynist). And if you can’t do some of these things, it’s not because your knowledge isn’t properly yours but because there’s some crucial thing that you fail to know.

    Moral Education
    And this brings me to Kieran’s question about moral education. I think the point of moral education is not to convey abstract moral principles. Rather, it has two closely related goal: one is simply to instil knowledge in our children, both moral and nonmoral. Knowledge begets more knowledge: the more knowledge we have, the more we are able to come to know, both by testimony and other means. The second is to instil conceptual competence: to teach the child to make moral sense of the world around them in terms of kindness, compassion, generosity, as well as (sadly) cruelty, sexism, and racism.

    Moral testimony has an important role to play in both. But as I say in my paper, I do not think that moral testimony is a panacea. Nor is the reductionism committed to saying so. There are limits on what we can learn by testimony because there are limits on what can be put in words, on our attention spans, etc. And so, I agree that if Kieran had reason to think that all of his son’s moral knowledge was testimonial, he’d have reason to worry: not because it was testimonial but because he’d have reason to think that there may be some important things that his son does not know.

    The nature of moral education and the role that moral testimony has to play in it is one of the important issues that are at stake between reductionists and non-reductionists about moral understanding. My view is that non-reductionism fails to does justice to the important role that moral testimony plays in it as well as its limits. I also think that non-reductionism makes it mysterious how moral education is possible. How do we transmit understanding? If moral understanding requires a “grasp” of a proposition that’s somehow different from just knowing its content, then I’m not sure how we are to transmit it.

  2. Katherine Hawley says:

    I very much enjoyed reading this paper, and came away sympathetic to Sliwa’s views. In particular, in thinking about the various reductionist claims, I found it really helped, as she recommends, to separate the capacity for moral understanding (which may be more or less developed in different people) from instances of moral understanding (e.g. why a certain act is wrong).

    Let me offer Sliwa another response to Setiya’s Frances-Kamm-Meets-A-Philosopher-Of-Science scenario. The POS learns from Kamm that it is wrong to push the button in a certain complex trolley case, and he learns the detailed reasons why it’s wrong. But, supposedly, the POS still doesn’t understand why it’s wrong, so we have a challenge to Sliwa’s claim that if you have enough moral knowledge of the right kind, you have moral understanding.

    Towards the end of the paper, Sliwa argues that to gain moral knowledge through testimony, it’s not enough to listen to a reliable advisor, you have to be able to recognize the advisor as reliable. “The ability to recognize a reliable moral advisor requires the capacity to acquire moral knowledge based on evidence other than just moral testimony.” (551). And I wonder whether eminent moral philosophers are recognizable as reliable moral advisors in the required sense. What Sliwa says about spotting good advisors sounds right, yet it doesn’t seem we use our *moral* knowledge to detect eminent moral philosophers. So maybe the POS isn’t even really getting moral knowledge from Kamm, which is why he doesn’t get moral understanding.

    (I still can’t quite believe I’m hubristic enough to dis Frances Kamm’s moral expertise in my first ever Pea Soup comment…)

  3. Katherine Hawley says:

    Paulina’s comment went up as I was composing mine – our responses to Kamm and POS are along much the same lines, but I think she could concede that Kamm knows and yet still deny that the POS can get moral knowledge from Kamm.

  4. Speaking of philosophers of science who know little about ethics…

    I’m wondering why we should pursue a local account of the knowledge/understanding distinction that is specific to the moral case, rather than pursuing a unified account that would also apply to the scientific case, and to any other context in which a distinction between knowledge and understanding is drawn.

    One account of scientific understanding I rather like is that of De Regt and Dieks (2005, Synthese), who argue that understanding why p consists, roughly, in knowing an intelligible theory of p, where a theory is ‘intelligible’ for a particular subject just in case the subject can see the ‘qualitative characteristic consequences’ of the theory in particular cases without performing exact calculations.

    For example, to know why Galileo’s heavy and light cannonballs fall at the same rate, it may be enough to know that, according to Newton’s laws, acceleration due to gravity is independent of mass. However, to understand why they fall at the same rate, you need to know the laws, and the theory as a whole must be intelligible to you. If the theory is intelligible to you, you’ll be able to see qualitative characteristic consequences, such as “if I did this experiment on the Moon, they’d still fall at the same rate, but the rate would be slower”.

    On this approach, scientific understanding has an epistemic component — no understanding without knowledge — but there is also an intelligibility condition on the object of knowledge that relates it to other cognitive abilities.

    Perhaps at least some of this carries over to the moral case? It seems to help with my hypothetical encounter with Kamm. Kamm’s Principle of Quintuple Effect provides me with knowledge of why pushing the switch is wrong, but this knowledge does not suffice for understanding precisely because I do not know an intelligible theory within which this principle is embedded. By contrast, if we grant that Kamm does indeed know such a theory, she can be said to understand why pushing the switch is wrong. Give Kamm any trolley problem, no matter, how arcane, and she’d see the qualitative characteristic consequences of the theory — push/don’t push — without performing exact calculations, which is an ability I do not have.

  5. Kieran Setiya says:

    Thanks to Paulina for her very illuminating answers to my questions, and again for the terrific paper that prompted them. A few additional thoughts…

    On reductionism and testimony: I see that it is no use to stipulate that someone comes to know q by testimony but still lacks moral understanding; and I see that there is room for reductionists to deny that knowledge of q can be transmitted by testimony at all, as with the timbre of someone’s voice. But I am still unsure why I should believe that every case of moral understanding that seems difficult to transmit by testimony is one in which there is missing knowledge that takes this form. In the timbre case, the problem is getting my interlocutor to entertain the relevant proposition, communicating my topic; it is not about getting them to know that the proposition is true once they know what it is. How much moral knowledge is like that? How much of it involves propositions that are hard to articulate or discuss? It looks as thought the plausibility of Paulina’s view depends on the answer to this question.

    On the Kamm case: again, I see that there might be relevant knowledge Kamm lacks, and relevant knowledge not possessed by the philosopher of science. But on the other hand, there might not. I don’t see why I should predict that the philosopher of science lacks relevant knowledge, simply on the ground that his knowledge of the original proposition is second-hand. Perhaps there is nothing more to know.

    This is pretty abstract and largely question-begging. How to move things forward? It would help to know Paulina’s views about a somewhat similar, somewhat different case: understanding a proof. Suppose T can be derived from axioms A to G in a certain formal system. Fern originates the proof and shows it to Wiles. Wiles learns by testimony that T follows from A to G, what the steps of the proof are, and that each step is valid. But we can imagine that, although he knows exactly how it goes, Wiles doesn’t understand the proof.

    What is he missing? Must it be some relevant knowledge? I don’t see any reason to think so, not to suspect that any relevant knowledge is ineffable or resistant to transmission by testimony. Can’t I stipulate that Fern knows nothing more than Wiles about the proof of T? It is just that she gets it and Wiles doesn’t. Fern might even know less about the proof than Wiles; she can infer directly from A to G to the truth of T.

    I think part of what Wiles lacks is the capacity to make the inference himself, even though he knows it is a valid inference and how to break it down into steps. The deficit is not in what he knows but how. Does Paulina agree about this, but think the moral case is different Or does she disagree?

    Suppose she disagrees: Wiles’ failure to understand the proof must involve some lack of knowledge. That leaves a further question: does his failure to make the inference involve a lack of knowledge, too? If so, what is it that he fails to know? We are in the orbit of Achilles and the Tortoise.

    Consider, briefly, an even simpler case. P follows directly from Q. Fern makes the inference and concludes ‘P because Q’. Wiles takes this on testimony but cannot make the inference himself. He doesn’t get it. Must that involve some lack of knowledge on his part? Does it involve a failure of understanding?

    These questions matter to a final topic: moral education. Unlike Paulina, I think it matters how you know, not just what you know, about morality. She suggests that moral education involves the acquisition of conceptual capacities and moral knowledge. What about the capacity to make appropriate inferences from non-moral premises to moral conclusions? This looks like a further goal of moral education, one that does not reduce to the ones she mentions. (I would add to inference the capacity for non-inferential knowledge, but we can set that aside for now.) Does Paulina doubt that there is a further element of this kind? Or does she accept the need for it but doubt that it is required for moral understanding?

  6. Alison Hills says:

    Thanks very much to Paulina for the excellent paper, which explains what an appealing kind of reductionism about moral understanding would look like, and Kieran for his very helpful comments. There is a great deal I would like to say about both of them. I would like to begin by picking up on some of Kieran’s questions at the end of his précis.

    Why non-reductionism about understanding? Quite generally, I think it plausible that there is more than one important way that true beliefs can be “tied down” – by justification for knowledge, and by a set of abilities for understanding. There are good theoretical reasons for distinguishing these two epistemic states. There are plausible situations in which we have knowledge without understanding (as in the examples Kieran gives above, like him, I don’t see any reason for thinking that more pieces of propositional knowledge are what is missing) and understanding without knowledge (e.g. In some Gettier situations, and some fake barn situations).

    What is at stake for whether we accept non-reductionism about understanding? One issue is this: if understanding does not require knowledge, then you might be able to have understanding in situations where you can’t get knowledge, for instance, where there is a lot of disagreement which is a defeater for knowledge but not (I have argued) for understanding, or where your true beliefs are “lucky”, ie not connected in the right way to the truth to have knowledge, but ok for understanding. We might well think that moral beliefs are like that – lucky, and subject to a lot of disagreement – and so non-reductive moral understanding will be of particular interest.

    Another place that non-reductionism might matter is if you do think that working things out for yourself, drawing your own inferences and coming to your own moral judgement is important, and therefore think trusting moral testimony is problematic. Paulina has a lot to say about how it might be difficult to pass on moral knowledge by testimony – it might be difficult to put in to words (like Kieran I am sceptical that this is often true), you will need background knowledge and conceptual competence (yes) and it might be difficult to identify moral experts (this is definitely true). But as far as I can see she doesn’t have anything to say about why you might choose not to ask for moral testimony from someone, not because you are concerned for their expertise but because it is important to work things out for yourself. Or why someone who is an expert might choose not to simply, assert what they know, but prefer the roundabout, indirect and rather laborious route of asking questions, giving analogies and so on, that are supposed to help you think things through. Like Kieran, I think moral education is almost always like this, and preferred that way by both sides, not because experts can’t explain what’s wrong (as in the Julie example in Paulina’s paper) but because they want you to acquire and to use your own understanding.

    A key point here is that it does matter how you make your moral judgments, what ground they have, and someone else’s word is not the ideal ground. So I think it is clearer to talk about trust in moral testimony – testimony as the ground of your moral belief – as being problematic, rather than testimony itself, whichever can instead be the trigger for you to think things through. Paulina is right that in practice, a lot of communication will include both. But it doesn’t follow that there is no principled difference between them or that the difference doesn’t matter morally. I think it does, because I think virtue is a set of dispositions to respond directly to moral value and moral reasons – an orientation towards the good. You can do this through right action, right motivation, and in forming your moral beliefs the right way. Second hand knowledge is not ideal.

  7. Victor Tadros says:

    Thanks very much for the paper and the discussion. I’m learning a lot. This is not my area at all, so sorry if this is inept!

    I think that Paulina convincingly shows that Alison’s account of moral understanding is at least too narrow. When I experience severe pain, I get a deeper understanding why it is wrong to inflict severe pain on people. But this might make no difference to my ability to do anything like follow an explanation why this is wrong, or explain it in my own words, or draw the conclusion that it is wrong. Of course, typically my ability to do these things will be improved. But this suggests at least that knowing what it is like to be the victim of wrongdoing is a kind of moral understanding that is not reducible to the abilities that Alison points to. In this case, when I improve my abilities, some aspect of my moral understanding that is not reducible to these abilities causes the improvement.

    I am at least tempted to think that the abilities that Alison points to are not constitutive of moral understanding at all, but rather that I have these abilities because I have moral understanding. Even if there are cases where I necessarily have these abilities when I have moral understanding, and necessarily lack them when I lack moral understanding, it seems doubtful that they are constitutive of moral understanding. It is good to have these abilities, and I typically have them with respect to some moral proposition because I understand it. But, like Paulina, I doubt that having these abilities with respect to some moral proposition constitutes understanding it.

    But this is not the only way that abilities relate to moral knowledge. I might have certain abilities because I know that a certain moral proposition is true, and know it in the right way, as in the case I have just discussed. But I might come better to understand a moral proposition because I gain knowledge of it through the exercise of certain abilities. The depth of my understanding might depend on which kinds of abilities I exercise. Alison and Kieran both think that it matters not just what one knows, but also how one knows. This seems clearly true, and not contingently so. But this might be simply because there are certain kinds of knowledge that we necessarily lack without exercising certain abilities, and gain by exercising them well. If this is so, reductivists need not reject the general idea that how we know is important, and that testimony will not do the job for certain kinds of moral understanding for the reasons Alison gives.

    Here are three views about the relationship between these abilities and moral understanding that contrast with the reductivist view. One view is that understanding is constituted in part by having these abilities (which is the view that Kieran expressed). Another is that it is constituted in part by the exercise of these abilities. But there is a third view: the exercise of these abilities might give me an understanding of certain moral propositions in a way that does not amount to the gaining of new propositional knowledge.

    Consider Kieran’s example of a person’s ability to understand the truth of a moral proposition by grasping the argument for it. Having this ability seems necessary for a certain kind of moral understanding. But why?

    I doubt that a person has moral understanding simply because she has this ability – having it makes no difference if the person has not brought it to bear on the proposition in question. I might take the conclusion of a good argument to be true on testimony when I have the ability to reason through it myself. The fact that I have the ability does not help me to understand the conclusion until I exercise it, though.

    The question, then, is whether the exercise of this ability is constitutive of understanding, or whether this is only a necessary means of gaining a certain kind of understanding. If it is the latter, the question is whether the understanding I gain is a reducible to a gain in propositional knowledge.

    Consider: I know that a certain moral proposition is true because certain premises are true, and they lead to the relevant conclusion. I know this only as a result of the testimony of my smart, moral and trusted friends, but I have not thought through the argument carefully myself. And they tell me why the conclusion follows from the premises. I take their reasons on trust without thinking about it much. I then work through the argument myself carefully, and I thus grasp why the conclusion follows from the premises. It seems clear that I have gained understanding. But why?

    I don’t find it too plausible that the exercise of my ability to understand the argument is itself constitutive of my understanding. I think that gaining understanding is the aim that I have in exercising the ability that I have, and the exercising of the ability is not itself constitutive of the successful pursuit of the aim.

    But I am also not sure that I necessarily learn new propositional knowledge by exercising the ability. I don’t gain knowledge why the conclusion follows from the premises – I already knew that from testimony. But I do grasp why this is so in a way that I did not before. Perhaps Paulina can help me to see what propositional knowledge I gain in this case. Without seeing that, I am tempted by the idea that grasping an argument is not reducible to propositional knowledge, even if it is not reducible to having or exercising certain abilities either.

  8. Paulina Sliwa says:

    Hi Katherine! Thanks for your helpful suggestion!

    Hi Jonathan!
    Thanks for your suggestion. I do think that we should expect a unified theory of understanding, one that makes sense of both moral understanding and scientific understanding (as well as understanding in other domains).

    I have some reservations about De Regt and Diek’s proposal as a whole. In particular, I don’t think it can be a general requirement of having instances of moral understanding that you know a theory from which you can derive consequences. Most of us both know and understand why we should save a drowning child or not torture puppies without any theory that we can point to or formulate. We understand why simply in virtue of knowing, for example, that the child would otherwise die.

    But I am sympathetic to the general suggestion you are making. In the specific context of talking to Frances Kamm, we expect her to have such a theory. And this is knowledge that the Philosopher of Science lacks.

    I’m going to go ahead and post these while I think about and write up responses to Kieran, Alison, and Viktor.

  9. Paulina Sliwa says:

    Kieran and Alison! There’s so much to think about here. A few thoughts:

    Entertaining propositions
    In general, think it’s not at all trivial to get someone to entertain a given proposition. Or rather: it may be straightforward enough to get them to entertain *a* proposition but not to entertain the proposition that you know or want or need them to know. This problem arises any time there is a significant difference in expertise between speakers. (I think it’s one of the reasons why informed consent in medicine is so tricky. The patient is, in general, simply not able to entertain the proposition that they would have to entertain in order to informedly agree to it.) So, I don’t think that the moral domain is special in this respect.

    In response to your question: I do think that much of moral knowledge is like that. Any moral proposition that employs thick moral concepts requires competence with respect to those concepts in order to entertain it: concepts like human right, sexual harassment, jerk, racism. If someone does not have a good grip on what a jerk is, then she may not be able to entertain the proposition that “Keith is a jerk” when I tell her he is. Or she will not be able to entertain *the same* proposition that I entertain when I think to myself “Keith is a jerk”. And this will affect what she can learn from my testimony.

    And again, these problems are particularly likely to arise in the context of moral education, when talking to a child who simply does not know what racism or sexism or a fundamental human right is. Telling them that something is a fundamental human right won’t do them much good, epistemically, since they are not in a position to entertain that proposition. They might be able to parrot the sentence back but that is no evidence that they know the proposition the question – at most, it’s evidence that they know that the sentence expresses a truth.

    This is why, as Alison notes, “an expert might not simply assert what they know, but prefer the roundabout, indirect, and rather laborious route”. That route may be necessary to get the student or child or lay person to come to know precisely because it is necessary for them to entertain the very proposition that the expert tries to convey.

    Inference
    Let me think through Kieran’s simple case.
    P follows directly from Q. Fern makes the inference and concludes ‘P because Q’. Wiles takes this on testimony but cannot make the inference himself. He doesn’t get it.

    I think a lot depends here on the details. But insofar P follows *directly* from Q and Wiles is unable to infer it, he may simply not know that ‘P because of Q’ on Fern’s testimony. And this is because he may not know that P and Q to begin with.

    Thus, take the following case;
    P: “This umbrella is red.”
    Q: “This umbrella is scarlet.”

    I think it’s very strange to think that Wiles could know that this umbrella is scarlet without being able infer that it’s red. This is because if you don’t know that scarlet things are red, then you don’t know what scarlet is. Knowing that if something is scarlet, it’s red is part of what you have to know to have a grip on the concept of scarlet.

    Something similar is true of cases like:
    P: “Intentionally burning someone with cigarettes is wrong.”
    Q: “Intentionally burning someone with cigarettes is torture.”

    If you “don’t get” the inference, this is because you don’t have the knowledge that intentionally burning someone with cigarettes is torture.

    So I agree that some ability to draw inferences is important but that’s because it’s part of what it is to have the requisite concept (and hence to be able to even entertain propositions employing the concept). Not because that gets you some further epistemic good, distinct from knowledge.

    The value of working things out for yourself
    I agree that being able to draw inferences by yourself is a valuable skill. It’s a valuable epistemic tool because it’s a way to acquire knowledge. And so the capacity of moral understanding is partly constituted by your capacity to draw inferences. And crucially this is a skill that you have to exercise even when you rely on moral testimony, because you need to rely on some of your own moral reasoning to identify good moral advisors.

    This gives us a, straightforward reason why working things out for yourself is valuable. It is a way to hone that skill. And this skill is essential even to acquire moral knowledge by testimony, so you do really need to hone it.

    There is a second reason. We often come to have more knowledge by working things out than if we simply rely on the right answer by testimony. Inquiring into a question yourself, you can often come to know more than if you just relied on an expert. You might come to know that certain, perhaps initially plausible, ways of approaching the question won’t yield the answer. You might come to know why they don’t work. You might come to know specific details about the solution that otherwise we would not have attended to. Some of these things might be epistemically valuable, some of them practically useful, some of them you might just find interesting. Perhaps an expert could have, in principle, told you all these things but they may not have thought of doing so and, prior to your inquiry, you would not have known to ask. Or you would not have paid attention to them, if they had told you.

    So I think there’s much to recommend working things out for yourself. It hones your skill and it will often give you more knowledge. But it doesn’t give you any special “gold star” knowledge.

  10. Paulina Sliwa says:

    Victor, thanks for your question! I have to run now but will come back to you later.