This is the first in our new series of featured philosophers. Many more to come. For the schedule look here.
Ambitious Moral Perceptualism and Moral Knowledge from the Armchair
by Preston Werner
There are many discussed objections to what I call the Ambitious Perceptualist view. Here, I want to think through some half-baked ideas about the relationship between Perceptualism and the role of thought experiments in moral deliberation and normative theorizing.
We (justifiably) use thought experiments in normative theorizing. But, the thought goes, this is not so for other domains whose epistemologies bottom out in perception. As Michael Milona (2018) puts it:
“[W]ith [empirical inquiry], we rely on actual experiments, evaluative inquiry only seems to require thought experiments…A theory which denies the possibility of evaluative knowledge by mere reflection is going to be highly revisionary; and many would rightly count such a commitment as a serious strike against the theory.”
Cat Burning. You want to know whether lighting your cat on fire is morally wrong. You vividly imagine dousing her in gasoline and lighting a match. You form the belief Lighting Mifletset on fire is wrong.
Let’s call this claim, that thought experiments can provide justification for moral beliefs, Datum. As it stands, Datum does not provide support for the claim that there is a deep asymmetry between moral and empirical justification. We can gain empirical knowledge by doing thought experiments:
Couch. You are trying to fit a large and heavy couch through a narrow doorway. You imagine various possible ways of maneuvering the couch until you discover a pattern of movement that will allow the couch to fit using gravity to make it so that you won’t need to lift both sides at once (which would make it too heavy). You form the justified belief The couch will fit through the door by moving it in such and such a way.
The empirical knowledge in a case like Couch is proximately justified by imagination, but the imagination only has the justificatory force that it does because of previous experiences of gravity, large objects, doorways, and so on. The Ambitious Perceptualist could say the same thing about Cat Burning.
Nonetheless, it still feels like there is some asymmetry between Cat Burning and Couch. Perhaps the difference has to do with what we might call, following Sarah McGrath (2011), the “dream test”. Imagine a child counting rocks in order to determine that 2+3=5. In such a case, her experience is playing a causal role in the formation of her justified belief. Nonetheless, the justificatory force of her belief is a priori, as evidenced by the fact that she would not lose her justification for 2+3=5 even if it turned out that she had dreamt of counting the pebbles. The same, we may think, for Cat Burning. Even if your previous experiences of fire, animals, pain, and so on were all dreamt, you’d still be justified in believing that Lighting Mifletset on fire is wrong. Not so with Couch. This illustrates that, at best, experience can enable justified moral beliefs, but not actually justify them.
I’m not so sure that this line of reasoning works. Without holding fixed empirical knowledge about fire and cats, I don’t think we are in a position to be justified in the belief that Lighting Mifletset on fire is wrong. It seems that again, just as in Couch, we need to feed in empirical knowledge for the thought experiment to justify.
Perhaps selecting Cat Burning as my example looks like stacking the deck in favor of the Ambitious Perceptualist. Perhaps instead the asymmetry will re-appear once we look at fundamental normative truths, such as
Pain. Causing pain is pro tanto bad.
Let’s grant that Pain is a necessary truth, and that some people are justified in believing it. If the Ambitious Perceptualist is right, Pain’s justification too must bottom out in moral perceptual experiences. And you might think this can’t be. Now, notice that the objection can’t just be that Pain is a general principle, and principles can’t be perceived. There are plenty of general principles that we know on the basis of experience. It must be that our justification in Pain is somehow not of the right sort to be justified by perceptual experiences. The opponent of Ambitious Perceptualism must flesh out this ‘not of the right sort’ claim. Here are two ways:
- We know that Pain is a necessary truth. But induction over cases won’t be of the right kind to justify knowledge of necessity.
- Our justification for Pain is what explains our justification for particular cases (such as Cat Burning). The Ambitious Perceptualist gets the order of justification wrong. Moral justification is top-down, not bottom-up.
Proposal (1) relies on a conflation first pointed out by Al Casullo (1988). It is one thing to have justification for some proposition P, and another thing to have justification for the proposition that if P, then necessarily P. It is wholly compatible with an Ambitious Perceptualist view of the justification of Pain even if moral perceptions can’t provide us with evidence that Pain is necessarily true. We would just need some other story about our justification for the claim that pure normative claims are necessary if true at all.
Proposal (2) relies on the highly contentious and unpopular view that moral justification proceeds by first being justified in general principles and only then reasoning downward to particular cases. This is in conflict with the reflective equilibrium methodology of normative theorizing that many know and love, and anyway, it entails a pretty unrealistic conception of how non-philosophers reason and form (justified) moral beliefs.
In short, while I haven’t given anything like a conclusive argument that there is no deep problem here for Ambitious Perceptualism, it is not obvious how the ‘armchair knowledge’ argument is supposed to work.
(In fact, I think the Ambitious Perceptualist is surprisingly better placed to explain armchair knowledge than her opponent. But such an argument will have to wait for another time.)