Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Moral Disagreement and Epistemic Advantages: A Challenge to McGrath

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Moral Disagreement and Epistemic Advantages: A Challenge to McGrath

Article excerpt

MANY OF MY MORAL VIEWS ARE CONTROVERSIAL, which means that a good number of people out there believe these views are incorrect. Moreover, I am at least somewhat motivated to be moral. How much should it worry me that so many people think my views are mistaken, and likely to lead me astray?

If Sarah McGrath (2008; 2011) is right, it should worry me a fair amount. According to her arguments, I am not in a position to regard my own moral judgment as any more credible than any other person's judgment. If everyone, or nearly everyone, agrees with me, I can be fairly confident my view is justified, but I cannot claim anything like this kind of consensus for my beliefs that (a) same-sex marriages should be legally recognized (at least in economically developed democracies (1)), and (b) that women should be treated more or less as equals to men (pretty much everywhere). (2) (I will refer to these views as "marriage equality" and "gender equality," respectively.) Many people think that marriage equality and gender equality are, in fact, immoral. So McGrath's position implies that I should have serious doubts about whether it is wrong to vote in favor of gay marriage, or oppose religious sexism, for instance.

Her argument is based on two controversial positions. First, she adopts a version of what is often called the Equal Weight View, which holds that I should give the opinions of those I regard as epistemic peers about the same weight I give to my own opinions. Second, she argues for a position I will call the Moral Peer View, which holds that I should regard others as my epistemic peers on moral questions. (3) While both of these views are controversial, I think that at least some version of the Equal Weight View is correct, and I shall assume as much in this paper. Instead, I will concentrate on the Moral Peer View. Under pressure from Nathan King (2011a), McGrath admits that the Moral Peer View need not always have been true, though she maintains it is true now. Although King seems to think there should be current counterexamples to the Moral Peer View, he holds back from actually proposing any. I will make a tentative case that many of us who favor marriage equality and gender equality are currently in a position to reject the Moral Peer View with regard to these issues, and I will propose general conditions under which people can reasonably take their disputed moral beliefs to be epistemically advantaged, relative to those who disagree.

1. McGrath's Position

McGrath's central argument aims to show that our controversial moral beliefs do not amount to knowledge, but I will focus mainly on one particular premise, which is, for my purposes, more troubling than her conclusion. That premise is:

P1. Our controversial moral beliefs are CONTROVERSIAL (2008: 92).

Several terms here require some explanation. First, when McGrath speaks of "our controversial moral beliefs" she means

our beliefs about the correct answers to the kinds of questions that tend to be hotly contested in the applied ethics literature as well as in the broader culture (ibid.).

And a belief of mine is CONTROVERSIAL if it meets certain conditions made famous by Sidgwick:

I find [it] in direct conflict with a judgment of some other mind ... and ... I have no more reason to suspect error in the other mind than in my own (Sidgwick 1907, 342, quoted on McGrath 2008: 91).

So, in brief, P1 asserts that, on hotly contested ethical questions, we have just as much reason to think ourselves mistaken as those who disagree with us.

In her definition of "our controversial moral beliefs," it is unclear whether McGrath means beliefs that are debated in both academic circles and the broader culture, or those that are debated in one of the two spheres. She goes on to argue, though, that academics should not regard their moral beliefs as more credible than those of laypeople (97-99), so she seems to have the latter interpretation in mind. …

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