Welcome to what we expect will be an interesting and productive discussion on Preston’s Werner‘s “Moral Perception without (Prior) Moral Knowledge” (which the Journal of Moral Philosophy has generously provided free access to until the end of November). David Faraci has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!
Critical Précis by David Faraci:
Thanks to PEA Soup and to the Journal of Moral Philosophy for offering me this opportunity to discuss Preston Werner’s excellent “Moral Perception without (Prior) Moral Knowledge.”
Preston’s paper is, in large part, a response to my “A Hard Look at Moral Perception” (Philosophical Studies 2015), and I want to thank him for taking the time to trudge through that paper. I’ve written a longer reply to Preston, which is also forthcoming in JMP. What I’ll say here is a mix of things I say there and some new stuff.
In my 2015, I argued that if there is moral perception (which I grant from here out), it relies on background moral knowledge that is non-perceptual, and thus there can be no “purely perceptual” moral epistemology. Moral experiences, I argued, are always grounded in non-moral experiences (at least in epistemically good cases). For instance, in Harman’s famous cat-torture case, our experience of the wrongness of the cat-torture depends on our experience of its non-moral features (the cat’s yowling, etc.). Preston largely accepts this, but in case you’re dubious, just notice that if I substituted some convincing, fake cat-torture for the real cat-torture, you’d still have an experience of wrongness, even though there wouldn’t be any. The best explanation for this, I claim, is that your moral experience is grounded in your non-moral one.
So, you experience the wrongness of the cat-torture because you experience its non-moral properties. Arguably, in order to know Q by inference from P, you need to know that P implies Q. In this case, that means you need to know that the yowling (etc.) implies wrongness. Could you know that by perception? Perhaps, but since that would be moral perception, and all moral perception is grounded in non-moral perception, you’d get a regress. At some level, your perceptual moral knowledge depends on non-perceptual moral knowledge.
Ok, that’s nice and quick and there are lots of caveats and objections. But we should probably focus on Preston’s worry. Preston argues that this picture over-intellectualizes perception. In many cases, he thinks, one experience is grounded in another, but we can’t be required to know the relevant implication, because we don’t even believe it. Here’s a motivating example:
I can, typically, effortlessly distinguish the sound of a piano from that of an acoustic guitar. But I couldn’t even begin to explain this difference or point to the low level qualities of tone and timbre that ground their differences. I have no beliefs, much less knowledge, of how I go from low level auditory information to the auditory experience of a piano. (9)
Preston thinks he doesn’t need to know that <low level sounds> imply <guitar sound> because he doesn’t even believe it. All that is required, he thinks, is that there be some “subdoxastic information states which ground reliable transitions from” one experience to the other (7). Analogously, he can grant that moral experiences are grounded in non-moral experiences, but maintain that the epistemological merit of the former depends only on the existence of such reliable subdoxastic states.
When I first read Preston’s paper, my initial reaction was to think that I hadn’t over-intellectualized perception, but rather that Preston has over-intellectualized belief and/or inference. I was tempted by the view that what Preston is calling “subdoxastic information states” just are beliefs, albeit implicit ones that we are perhaps typically unable to put into words, and that in order for Preston to know that he’s hearing a guitar, his implicit belief that <low level sounds> imply <guitar sound> must still constitute knowledge. I realized, however, that this would involve sticking my neck out more than I need to, given my dialectical interests. Writing this précis has further convinced me that I need to think more about whether I should maintain that position even silently in my heart, more on which later.
To get at what I’m more than just tempted to say, consider a passage at the close of the section in which Preston offers his objection:
The opponent of a purely perceptualist view shouldn’t be satisfied with C* [the claim that moral perception can be reliably mediated by subdoxastic states]. The alleged problem for the pure perceptualist is that moral perceptions, when they are epistemically successful, can only ground moral knowledge because they depend on justified moral beliefs. . . . If the relevant mediating states are subdoxastic states, they won’t be the sorts of things that require . . . any propositional knowledge at all . . . to generate successful moral experiences. C* is the strongest conclusion we can draw from Faraci’s argument . . . The purely perceptualist view is left standing. (10)
I think I can accept all of this, except the claim that I shouldn’t be satisfied with C*. Here it will be useful to say something about my dialectical focus. It is notoriously difficult for realists to account for even the possibility of moral knowledge. In large part, this is because realists have tended to be intuitionists, and it is notoriously difficult to account for the reliability of intuition, to explain how intuition can grant us “access” to moral truth. I suspect this is a large part of the motivation for the current trend towards perceptualism in moral epistemology. The hope is that realists can bypass these worries by appealing to something whose epistemic credentials are less dubious.
The mistake in my 2015—one I thank Preston for illuminating—was running together questions about reliability with questions about justification. What I should have argued is only that moral perception doesn’t help realists account for the reliability of our moral beliefs. This is because saying we know something “by perception” isn’t itself an answer to questions about reliability. Most knowledge by perception seems immune to such worries, but that’s just because the story about perceptual reliability is comparatively simple in many cases (which is not to say it is simple full stop), appealing to things like causal connections between our experiences and the bits of the world they represent. By contrast, there is no obvious explanation for how our perceptual systems learn to get the right moral experiences out of the right non-moral ones. Indeed, finding that explanation seems daunting in ways that directly parallel standard challenges to explain the reliability of moral intuition.
To help illustrate this, consider a suggestion Preston makes near the end of the paper, when he anticipates the worry that we still need to account for the reliability of the relevant experiential transitions. He suggests that “perhaps the perceptual system alone has evolved to represent things in this way, in order to facilitate quick action” (14). Notice two things. First, this sort of explanation is frequently used to challenge moral knowledge. Indeed, the claim that our moral judgments have evolutionary origins stands at arguably the current most popular epistemological objection to realism. Second, this explanation does not seem distinctively perceptualist-friendly. If evolution does allow us to track the moral truth, that seems just as good an answer for intuitionists as for perceptualists!
In conversation, Preston has suggested that he agrees with most if not all of what I’ve said so far. My sense is that that’s because his concern is not with explaining reliability, but with the idea that we can appeal to moral experience as a basic source of justification for our moral beliefs.
This comes out nicely in his discussion of access internalism. Preston notes that someone might worry that all his talk of “reliable processes” means he is wedded to externalism about knowledge. In response, he points out that his argument is perfectly consistent with the claim “that in order to know P, an agent’s grounds for believing P must be accessible to her via reflection” (11). In perceiving the cat-torture as wrong, your grounds for belief—what you appeal to as a basic source of justification—are perfectly accessible to you: they are just your experiences! To demand that you further have access to the full explanation for the reliability of those experiences would be overkill. I agree with this (though as Preston notes, some things I said in my 2015 might suggest otherwise), with the single caveat that I think evidence that your belief could not be reliable is a defeater for that justification.
This brings me back to the question of how important it is, given Preston’s interests, that the connection between moral and non-moral experiences be a matter of non-inferential transitions rather than inferences, and subdoxastic information states rather than beliefs. We can see why this might seem important by noticing that the following set of claims is inconsistent:
- Moral experiences are a basic source of justification.
- Moral experiences are grounded in inferences from non-moral experiences, which are themselves grounded in beliefs about implications.
- Inferences and beliefs are subject to justification.
- Something can only be a basic source of justification if it is not grounded in anything else that is subject to justification.
I take it Preston wants to endorse (1). In argued for (2) in my 2015. (3) is pretty standard stuff. And it might be hard to see what it means for a source of justification to be basic unless (4) is true. One way out, echoing Preston, is to argue for:
(2′) Moral experiences are grounded in inferences or non-inferential transitions from non-moral experiences, which are themselves grounded in beliefs in implications or reliable subdoxastic states.
Before closing, let me gesture at a half-baked alternative. For a source of justification to be basic might just mean that it is a source that offers a kind of default justification, such that we can appeal to that source to close questioning about the grounds of our beliefs. But if that’s what we’re interested in, is it really necessary that basic sources of justification also be fundamental ones—ones whose justificatory force is independent of anything else that needs justification? I think perhaps not. Perhaps experience is a basic source of justification because it is generally reliable, and that’s why I can appeal to moral experience to justify my moral beliefs—at least until I gain too much evidence that my moral experiences in particular are not reliable. If that’s the case, then (4) is too strong, and that provides another way out of the inconsistency.
This may not ultimately be the way to go, but I do think it has something going for it. It seems to me that it would be quite surprising if anything of deep importance turns on whether the states that explain the move from non-moral to moral experiences count as “beliefs,” or whether those moves themselves count as “inferences,” and are therefore subject to justification. But, again, just a hunch.
Hopefully I’m understanding Preston’s (and my own) thoughts correctly here. If so, to close I’d just like to invite him to say more about his motivating views. What are the advantages of perceptualism over intuitionism when it comes to identifying basic sources of justification for moral beliefs? That is, if we grant that perceptualism doesn’t help explain the reliability of our moral beliefs, why is it nevertheless important that we appeal to experience rather than intuition when we seek to justify those beliefs? I look forward to seeing what Preston has to say to these and to everyone else’s questions, both here and in his future work.6