Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Self-Evidence and Disagreement in Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Self-Evidence and Disagreement in Ethics

Article excerpt

SUPPOSE JANE TELLS SARAH THAT SHE BELIEVES that active euthanasia is wrong and Sarah responds by questioning whether it is reasonable for Jane to hold this belief, or whether Jane's belief is justified. In a typical case, Jane will attempt to show that her belief about euthanasia is justified by citing a further moral belief that supports her belief about euthanasia, perhaps her belief that intentionally causing someone's death is wrong. Note that if this further belief about the wrongness of intentionally causing death is itself unjustified, it cannot justify Jane's belief about euthanasia. Thus, Sarah may ask how this further belief is justified.

Scenarios like this one show that in moral epistemology, as in general epistemology, there exists a regress problem. Most of our justified moral beliefs are inferentiallyjustified, that is, they are justified by further beliefs. But for these further beliefs to justify any beliefs, they too must be justified. We can justify these further beliefs by citing still further beliefs but this process cannot continue ad infinitum. (1) Nor is it plausible that justification travels in a circle (e.g., P is justified by Q which is justified by R which is in turn justified by P). For then we could only show that a belief is justified by assuming it in the first place. Thus, it seems that if we are to avoid moral skepticism, the regress must come to an end somewhere.

According to a traditional position in moral epistemology, which I will call moral foundationalism, the regress comes to an end with some moral beliefs. (2) In order to stop the regress, these moral beliefs must meet two conditions. First, they must be justified; otherwise it is doubtful that they could inferentially justify other beliefs. Second, they must not require further beliefs in order to be justified; otherwise the regress would begin again.

Moral foundationalism is an attractive position because it promises to answer the regress problem. However, the position inherits the burden of explaining why some moral beliefs have a particular privileged epistemic position--that is, why these beliefs are justified without requiring inferential support from other beliefs. The standard answer to this question is to insist that some moral beliefs have as their content propositions that are selfevident, (3) where self-evident propositions are those true propositions such that "if one adequately understands them, then by virtue of that understanding one is justified in believing them." (4)

This standard version of moral foundationalism comes in both strong and weak versions. According to strong moral foundationalism, an agent S is indefeasibly justified in believing any self-evident moral proposition P, so long as S adequately understands P. According to weak moral foundationalism, an adequate understanding of P renders S defeasibly justified in believing P. Note that strong moral foundationalism has the odd consequence that an agent could be justified in believing some self-evident proposition P even if P was radically incoherent with the other things S believes. For this reason, most contemporary moral foundationalists defend weak moral foundationalism, and I focus on this view in the discussion below.

Some philosophers who are not sympathetic to moral foundationalism object by denying that any moral proposition is self-evident. A well-known way of doing so is to note the deep disagreement about moral propositions among thoughtful, reflective people. As Richard Brandt puts it, "in ethics, even the doctors disagree." (5) Critics then infer from the nature of this disagreement that no moral proposition is self-evident.

Note, however, that it is not initially clear why the fact that a proposition is the subject of disagreement shows that it is not self-evident. Perhaps these philosophers think that a self-evident proposition must be obvious, and note that reflective, thoughtful people would not disagree about something that is obvious. …

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