Welcome to what should be a fun and insightful discussion of Spencer Case‘s “From Epistemic to Moral Realism” (generously made free access by Brill Online and the Journal of Moral Philosophy for this month). David Enoch has kindly contributed a critical précis, which appears immediately below. Please join the discussion!
Critical Précis to Spencer Case’s “From Epistemic to Moral Realism”
By David Enoch
I am delighted to start off the discussion of Spencer’s interesting paper, and I want to thank the PEA Soup people for inviting me to do this.
Spencer’s main claim – the one he is out to establish in this paper – is that if there are epistemic facts, there are moral facts (realistically understood). I accept this conditional’s consequent, so I’m fine with the conditional as well (I also accept its antecedent). But Spencer, of course, offers reasons to believe the conditional that do not depend on accepting moral realism – in fact, a part of the hope, I’m pretty sure, is to then employ the conditional as a part of an argument boosting the plausibility of moral realism. So in what follows I will present a quick overview of Spencer’s arguments, and then I’ll offer reasons to be suspicious of them. This criticism will be friendly, then, not just in the sense that we’re all engaged in a friendly cooperative effort to find the truth, but also in the sense that it comes from a fellow realist.
Spencer rejects one argument for the conditional (if epistemic realism then moral realism), and then offers two arguments in its favor.
The argument Spencer rejects (pursued most influentially by Terence Cuneo in The Normative Web) is an argument by analogy. According to this argument, it can be shown that any reason to be suspicious of moral facts (realistically understood) is equally a reason to be suspicious of epistemic facts. Spencer is unimpressed for two reasons: First, he notes that this argument seems to presuppose that at least in metaethics, realism is the default position, so that arguments are needed to defeat it, not so much to establish it. Second, and now assuming an equally weighty reason to reject moral and epistemic facts, still it’s possible that there are weightier other considerations supporting epistemic facts than there are moral facts (like perhaps the observation that epistemic antirealism is potentially self-defeating in a way that moral antirealism is not). If so, the epistemic realist can still consistently reject moral realism – just like you can opt for the chocolate mousse rather than the ice cream, acknowledging that their equal price is just as much a reason to give up one as the other, but insisting that the fact that the chocolate mousse is nicer is a reason to prefer it (despite the price).
Both of the positive arguments advanced by Spencer make use of epistemic impurism, that is, roughly, the thought the pragmatic considerations, and indeed moral ones, encroach on epistemology, so that whether a belief is justified or amounts to knowledge may depend on what is pragmatically or morally at stake.
As Spencer does a great job clearly presenting his two positive arguments, I’m going to cite him here. First comes the Entanglement Argument:
(1) If there are epistemic facts, then those beliefs that are arrived at through diligent inquiry are in some sense epistemically better than those arrived at through negligent inquiry.
(2) In some cases, the fact that an investigation counts as diligent or negligent presupposes facts about the moral features of the agent’s situation.
C: Therefore, if there are epistemic facts, then there are moral facts.
The intuitive thought is simple enough – whether and how we should continue investigation (or settle on a belief, say) depends on how important the matter is, on what the costs are of continuing with the investigation, and so on. So moral considerations are in, and they affect epistemic status.
Then there’s the Evidence Possession Argument:
(1) If there are epistemic facts, then there are facts about whether particular agents possess or lack evidence at a time.
(2) If there are facts about whether particular agents possess or lack evidence at a time, then there are moral facts.
C: Therefore, if there are epistemic facts, then there are moral facts.
Here the notion doing work, as the name of the argument suggests, is that of the possession of evidence, or of available evidence. The evidence available to you is evidence that it’s in some sense sensible for you to put your hands on. But whether it’s sensible to get some evidence again depends on pragmatic and moral considerations. So again morality is in.
There is much more, of course, in Spencer’s rich paper (like discussions of evidentialism, mentalism, and more). But I think this will suffice to get us started, and also to render the critical points below intelligible.
- Evaluating Spencer’s rejection of the analogy argument
Perhaps it’s best to leave it to Terence to defend his Normative Web argument. Still, I’d like to make two quick points.
The first one is that I think Spencer is right that this argument presupposes that realism is the default view in metaethics. But I don’t think this is a problem, as realism clearly is the default view. No one would have even thought to look elsewhere if they hadn’t thought that realism (or some specific version thereof) faces serious challenges.
The second is about the dialectical point, which states, as you’ll recall, that even if the reasons against epistemic and moral realism are equally weighty, accepting the former and rejecting the latter may still be consistent, if the reasons for epistemic realism are weightier than those against moral realism. Now, Spencer is clearly right about some cases (as the price-of-desert example above shows). But I want to note that this line of thought does not apply universally. Sometimes, what we learn from “companions in guilt” arguments is something about the price, and then Spencer’s point clearly holds. At others, though, what we learn from a “companion in guilt” argument is that the initial objection was confused – sometimes, in other words, such arguments play the role of an undercutting (and not merely overriding) defeater. When they do, what we learn is that the relevant objections are just no good.
There is no general, content-independent way of determining whether an analogy functions in this undercutting way or not. So what we should now do, I think, is revisit Cuneo’s book, and see whether what he has to say about traditional objections to moral realism is that the epistemic analogy merely shows that they apply also to epistemic realism as a further price, or whether he thinks the analogy shows that they fail (and the answer may be different for different objections). If the latter, Cuneo is off the hook.
- Impurism, Terminological Issues that Don’t Matter, and What Does
As I already noted, both the Entanglement Argument and the Evidence Possession Argument rely on epistemic impurism. Clearly, then, if there are sufficient reasons in general to reject impurism, then these arguments are undermined. Now, I have my doubts about impurism, but I am not going to pursue them here. A part of the reason is that some of the relevant discussions (in the literature; not in Spencer’s paper!) seem to me annoyingly terminological.
I am a conservative on such matters. I like my epistemic-pragmatic distinction rather clear and tidy. So when the point is made that the pragmatic and moral costs of inquiry are relevant for whether or not the inquiry should be pursued – which is obviously correct – I like to think of this as them showing not that practical considerations are a part of epistemology, but that there are these practical considerations in the vicinity of epistemology. But what, except for terminology (and maybe a conservative temperament), is at stake here, really? Surely, the way the word “epistemological” is used is not something of substantive interest here.
OK then, if we are to avoid terminological issues, we can make progress, I think, in the following way: We can all agree that moral considerations are relevant to whether or not someone should engage in more inquiry. And we can all agree that there’s a sense of diligence relevant epistemically that is morally sensitive. And we can all agree that there’s a sense of “available” in which evidence that you can only acquire at unacceptable moral costs is not available to you. And if Spencer (and other impurists) wants to describe these phenomena in terms of the epistemic being encroached on by the pragmatic or moral, we should let them have the word “epistemic”. With all this agreed on, then, we should also agree that some epistemic facts are partly constituted by moral facts.
Isn’t this, though, all that Spencer set out to establish? I think not – for one thing, notice that there is something disturbingly trivial about this result. Sure, if we use our words in ways that render inquiry-relevant moral considerations epistemically relevant, then if there are epistemic facts of this kind, there are moral facts as well. No surprise there. So I think that Spencer wants more. To see this, think of what I will call “epistemic islands”.
Epistemic islands are parts of epistemology that are not pragmatically or morally encroached on at all. Assume (for now) that there are such parts to epistemology (more on this shortly). If so, while some epistemic facts entail moral ones, epistemic-island-facts do not. Those can be true even if moral realism is false. So it seems to me that what Spencer needs is the following disjunction: Either there are no epistemic islands, or, if there are, a position that is realist about them but not about the rest of epistemology is highly implausible. Or, to put the second disjunct differently: There’s no motivation for realism about non-island facts that is not equally a motivation for realism about island-facts. If this disjunction is false, there’s still the possibility of a view that’s antirealist about morality, as well as about the impure parts of epistemology, but that is realist about epistemic-island-facts. And if this disjunction is false, this kind of a view may be perfectly plausible, and Spencer may lose the crux of his analogy, and with it, ultimately, the reason to accept moral realism.
In a minute I’ll suggest some relevant epistemic islands. I think that they make the first line – rejecting the possibility of epistemic islands – highly implausible. Let me just note that perhaps some impurists – perhaps those attempting to do everything with a primitive concept of knowledge that is essentially tied to action, say – would like to deny the possibility of even just parts of epistemology that are pure. I find this kind of line implausible, but won’t say more about it here.
Let me conclude this section, then, with some suggestions for pure epistemic islands, such that (I want to suggest) being realist about them seems well-motivated even if realism about morality or the rest of epistemology has to be rejected:
(i) Even if you accept impurism about epistemic justification, or knowledge, you may still want to reject it (as I think most do) about credences. That is, perhaps whether a belief is justified depends on the practical stakes. But what credence we should have in p seems to depend on just the evidence. If so, credences are an epistemic island, and realism about their epistemic status need not commit you to moral realism.
(ii) Even if you accept impurism about diachronic evaluations – whether someone should gather more evidence, and so on – you may still be a purist about synchronic justification, namely, whether given a body of evidence a belief is justified or not. So this may be another island.
And there may be more islands of this kind. Spencer needs to do more in order to show that epistemic realism limited to islands is not an attractive position.
- The Evidence Law of Morality
A final point, one that is perhaps fueled as much by my current philosophical obsessions as by Spencer’s paper.
In discussing the Evidence Possession Argument, Spencer rightly notes that whether the smoking gun is available to the jury – in at least one sense of “available” – may depend on whether it can be retrieved in a morally permissible way. And he notes how if it cannot, they don’t have the relevant evidence available to them, which may affect what they are justified in believing.
Agreed. But I don’t think this is the relevant case for assessing the Evidence Possession Argument. For that, think of two cases in which the juries get to observe the guns, except that in one of them (but not the other) the gun was obtained immorally (and perhaps illegally as well). Now, it’s quite possible that the jury is not allowed to rely on the immorally obtained evidence in its decisions. But should the members of the two juries have different beliefs – and different credences? – depending on whether the evidence was obtained immorally?
It seems to me that the clear answer is no. And this seems even clearer if we leave the legal, institutional setting and ask whether what you believe of me should depend on whether or not the evidence that you can now consider was obtained immorally. This kind of consideration raises its own interesting questions. But this, of course, is a matter for another occasion.