Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Robert Cowan‘s “Rossian Conceptual Intuitionism.” The article was published in the most recent issue of Ethics and is available through open access here. Philip Stratton-Lake has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!
In his excellent paper Robert Cowan offers an alternative to a perceptualist version of Rossian intuitionism which he calls Rossian Conceptualist Intuitionism (‘conceptualism’ for short). Perceptualism, as Cowan understands it, is the view that
an occurrent adequate understanding of a self-evident proposition, p, crucially involves standing in a noncausal, nonsensory, but perceptual-like relation to the concepts (which on this view are abstract entities, e.g., Universals) figuring in p, for example, an ‘apprehension’ or ‘acquaintance’ (826).
Although he does not explicitly distinguish them, Cowan lists three problems with perceptualism:
- It “requires an extravagant philosophy of mind, namely, a capacity for, or faculty of, nonsensory awareness of abstracta,” and this “jars with the claims that (at least some) contemporary Intuitionists make to the effect that the view only requires modest commitments” (827).
- It is committed to “the idea that nonsensory awareness makes us aware of a domain of abstracta” (828)
- Perceptualism requires that we have a sort of direct access to non-natural objects” (828)
2 is the objective correlate of 1, as the intuitions that figure in the “extravagant philosophy of mind” are supposed to put us in touch with a distinct domain populated with abstract objects. The existence of such a domain is a controversial metaphysics rather than an extravagant philosophy of mind, and is optional for an intuitionist. For all intuitions do is present some proposition as true. It is an open question how such presentation is to be understood or whether something else is presented rather than the truth of a proposition. The same is true of 3, as the claim is that perceptualism commits us to non-natural properties, and whether there are non-natural properties is not a matter of philosophy of mind.
I’ll make a few quick comments on these problems for perceptualism before moving on to Cowan’s positive thesis. First it is not clear to me that the idea of a distinctive mental state – an intellectual seeming – by itself is that extravagant. By itself it is just the view that there is a mental state that cannot easily be reduced to a belief or judgement. Certain propositions do present themselves to the mind as true when we consider them, and they share many phenomenological features with perceptual seemings, such as persisting even when we know that things are not as they seem.
It is only once one tacks on the idea that these states are a direct awareness of abstracta that an air of spookiness may appear. But that is the second objection not the first, and it is not clear that a non-conceptualist intuitionist is committed to this (although Cowan builds it into the definition of perceptualism). One may think, as Richard Price did, that what intuition puts us in touch with is a particular instance of a moral property – that is a particular way a particular thing or event is. Seeing the distinctive way in which some particular is, Price thought, gives us moral ideas (his term for moral concepts). Ross thought that we have the ability to move from the apprehension of a particular prima facie wrong acts to universal principles, but this ability is not obviously weird. It involves simply an ability to see that the prima facie wrongness of some particular act depends solely on its nature, and that need only involve considering particular cases carefully.
The abstracta the non-conceptualist Rossian is supposed to be commited to are concepts, but on the version of perceptualism defended by Richard Price we acquire these concepts through apprehension of concrete instances, rather than apprehension of abstract objects. We do not even need direct apprehension of the non-natural properties themselves; just their instances, plus an ability to see resemblance amongst instances.
Even if non-conceptualist intuitionists are committed to abstracta, that would not be a huge burden for them. Intuitionists are already committed to non-natural properties, so if they had to allow non-natural objects (abstracta) into their ontology, that would not be terrible news. My own view is that we should allow as many types of things/properties as is needed to offer the best account of how things are.
So I don’t think non-conceptualist Rossians are committed to an extravagant philosophy of mind. (Perceptualism is, but that is just because that is stipulated in the definition of perceptualism.) There is to my mind nothing extravagant about intellectual seemings. Extravagance only seems to come if we go on to posit a world of abstracta to which these seemings are connected. But a) more needs to be said to show that non-conceptualists are committed to this, and b) even if they were they would not be letting a new type of thing into their ontology, as they already buy into the non-natural.
Anyway, the main point I wanted to make here is that the case has not been made that intuitionists have to choose between conceptualism and perceptualism as Cowan defines these. So even if conceptualism has some advantage over perceptualism, it is not clear that that makes it the best theory for intuitionists. Some other form of non-conceptualist intuitionism may be better.
Let me move on to Cowan’s conceptualist alternative to perceptualism. Rossian intuitionism claims that a certain list of moral principles are self-evident. On the account of self-evidence Cowan favours, this means that they can be known solely on the basis of an understanding of them. Intuitionists thus need an account of understanding that enables such knowledge.
Just as an aside, my own view is that it was a mistake to think that adequate understanding provides evidence or justification for belief in self-evident propositions, and so to define self-evidence in a way that relies on that claim. Intuitionists already have intuition as a source of non-inferential justification. They do not need to add understanding as a separate source, and I think it was a mistake to do so. If we reject the idea that understanding is a source of justification, the pressure to come up with an account of understanding that enables it to play that role diminishes.
Cowan argues that Peacocke offers such an account. According to this view concepts are individuated by their possession conditions, which involve a tacit grip of the relevant first order normative theory.
A Rossian Conceptualist thinks that the implicit conception which individuates the concept moral reason encodes the Rossian Principles. Individuals who possess that concept are in possession of informational content such that their judgmental and inferential dispositions reflect a tacit commitment to the Principles. (829)
Given this account of understanding the concept MORAL REASON it is no mystery how someone can know the principles that are included in it. “When one comes to believe on the “basis” of adequate understanding, one is simply drawing— in some sense—on the informational content associated with the implicit conception.” (830) Rossian principles are built into that very understanding.
For example, the implicit conception associated with the concept MORAL REASON can be partially cashed out in terms of the Rossian Promissory Principle and the semantic value of MORAL REASON and, e.g., PROMISE-KEEPING, is such that the principle there is always an overridable but ineradicable moral reason to keep promises that one has made comes out as true. (831)
Actually Cowan has doubts about whether that is true, as he claims that there are insufficient data to support the Rossian list. So his Rossian conceptualist intuitionism may turn out not to be very Rossian. But that doesn’t matter, as he has a schema for knowing whatever principles do fall under that concept if it turns out they are not Rossian ones.
Cowan claims that this account has a prima facie advantage over perceptualism as it does not require knowledge of a third realm. “Subjects with adequate understanding simply possess/or have articulated an implicit conception that corresponds to the implicit conception constitutive of possession of the relevant concept” (831).
I have two concerns about conceptualism. The first relates to how it deals with moral disagreement, say between Rossian intuitionists and consequentialists. It seems there are only two options, neither of which is satisfactory. The first option is to say that both sides of the debate have adequate grasp of the concepts they use, but that they have different concepts with different application conditions and a different conception built into each – one Rossian, the other consequentialist. But that would have the consequence that they are simply talking past each other rather than really disagreeing, say, about whether it is right to keep a promise when doing so doesn’t maximise the good. They are talking past each other because the conception that determines the application conditions built into the concept of a moral reason each of them uses is very different. If that is correct then conceptualism can’t capture simple disagreement between consequentialists and deontologists.
The second option is to say that they really are deploying the same concept of a moral reason (let us say it is the one with the Rossian principles built into it). So there is genuine disagreement. But the problem with this solution is that we will have to say that the consequentialist’s disagreement stems from the fact that they lack an understanding of the concepts they are using – that really they are rather confused. I disagree with consequentialists, but I do not think they are confused, or lack a grip of the concepts they are using.
So it seems to me that conceptualism cannot adequately capture this sort of disagreement. It is either no disagreement at all, or makes a very implausible assumption about the one side of the debate. This debate is a substantive one, and that needs to be retained.
That brings me on to my second worry. It is a sort of inverted substantivity objection (ISO). The substantivity objection (SO) that Cowan lays out is as follows:
P1. The Rossian Principles are substantive propositions.
P2. If a proposition is substantive, then it is not self-evident.
C. The Rossian principles are not self-evident.(832)
Cowan seems to follow Väyrynen in identifying the substantive/non-substantive distinction with the analytic/conceptual synthetic/non-conceptual distinction (833). So this objection assumes that only analytic/conceptual propositions can be self-evident, and Cowan seems to agree. He gets around SO by denying P1. According to conceptualism Rossian principles are conceptual truths, so they can be self-evident (834).
My ISO to his view runs as follows:
P1. The Rossian Principles are substantive propositions.
P2*. Any account of Rossian principles that is inconsistent with P1 is false.
P3. Conceptualism is inconsistent with P1.
C*. Conceptualism is false.
Like many other intuitionists and many other rationalists I have no problem with the idea of synthetic a priori propositions (although not all synthetic a priori propositions are self-evident). So I would deal with SO by rejecting P2.
In what sense are Rossian principles substantive? I am inclined to endorse the following account discussed by Cowan:
SUB. A denial of p—or a failure to manifest belief that p—by an agent, S, who has entertained p does not itself constitute prima facie evidence that S fails to understand p. (837)
I was using this conception of a substantive claim/dispute in my first worry about disagreement. Cowan rejects SUB on the ground that (a) it does not support P2, and (b) it converts at least one non-substantive proposition into a substantive one. (a) has no force against those who, like me, reject P2. In any case there is no requirement to tailor an account of the substantive/non-substantive distinction so that P2 comes out true.
The example that illustrated (b) is Cowan’s third example of a non-substantive proposition.
c) If scenarios x and y are identical in all their nonethical respects, then x and y are identical in all ethical respects (833).
But it is not clear to me that this is a non-substantive proposition, and in a footnote Cowan himself notes that the inclusion of (c) as a non-substantive proposition is controversial. He keeps the example, but says that “the argument of this section goes through without this assumption” (833). Given that (c) is not supposed to play a role in the argument because it is controversial, he cannot refer to this to reject SUB. Indeed I think there is very good grounds to reject the idea that (c) is a conceptual claim. But there are bound to be propositions of which it is unclear what side of the substantive/non-substantive distinction they stand, and reference to such propositions should not be used in assessing different accounts of the distinction. I think that the transitivity of better than is a case in point. On the face of it this looks like a non-substantive claim, but that philosophers like Temkin can intelligibly argue against this principle suggests that it is substantive. The concepts involved in the substantive/non-substantive distinction, like so many others, may have fuzzy edges, so there may not even be a truth of the matter whether certain propositions such as the two mentioned fall one side or the other of the distinction. These are best avoided when trying to specify what the distinction is.
That consequentialists disagree with Rossian intuitionists is no evidence that they do not understand the concepts involved. This is a substantive disagreement, and I think we should reject any theory that denies this. That may make the epistemology harder. It may mean that intuitionists have to make less modest commitments than they hoped to, such as a commitment to abstracta. But as I said earlier, since abstracta are a type of non-natural object, and many intuitionists are already committed to non-naturalism, that additional baggage may not be very costly at all.