Some Random Thoughts About Naturalized Moral Epistemology

Naturalized Epistemology (NE) is a movement in modern philosophy which aims to situate theorizing about knowledge, justification, warrant, and various other epistemic concepts within the realm of the empirical, alongside the natural sciences (Quine 1969). In what sense our theorizing about epistemic concepts and their application ought to be situated alongside the natural sciences is what divides various naturalized epistemologists (cf. Haack 1993). One theme that can be found among many NE theorists is the rejection of purely a priori methods in epistemology (Rysiew 2016).

In moral epistemology, some NE theorists have taken a more liberal view of the sense in which epistemology ought to be naturalized. For example, Tobin and Jaggar have developed a methodology based on case studies, which is not embedded within any particular scientific field (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a & 2013b). Rather, their methodology is broadly a posteriori and takes various lines of empirical evidence into account from many different sources (Tobin 2007 & Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Tobin and Jaggar’s methodology is developed with the explicit aim of providing a means for resolving ethical disputes across cultures, and it deploys a set of conditions which forms of moral reasoning must meet (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). One worry for their methodology is the possibility of higher order disagreement about both the conditions themselves and interpreting their application to particular instances of moral reasoning.

The set of conditions which Tobin and Jaggar provide for assessing forms of cross-cultural moral reasoning are: plausibility to the disputants, usability by the disputants, nonabuse of power and vulnerability by any disputant, and practical feasibility for the disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389). In short, the plausibility condition has it that justified normative conclusions ought to be intelligible to disputants, the usability condition has it that disputants ought to be able to participate in utilized reasoning practices, the nonabuse condition has it that no disputant can abuse positions of power or positions of vulnerability to gain an upper hand in the dispute, and the feasibility condition has it that proposals ought to represent real possibilities for disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389). Tobin and Jaggar provide reasons to believe that these adequacy conditions provide a normatively significant means for assessing forms of moral reasoning deployed in cross-cultural disputes.[1] For instance, a conclusion of an argument cannot have normative significance if it is based on reasoning biased against disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 389). Plausibility is a condition because there cannot be moral force for conclusions which disputants cannot recognize (Tobin and Jaggar 389-390). Usability is a condition because moral claims cannot be justified for those who cannot participate in the reasoning used to support them (Tobin and Jaggar 390). The nonabuse is a condition because rationality is contrasted with abuse of power (Tobin and Jaggar 390). Lastly, feasibility is based on “ought implies can.” because rationality requires that courses of prescribed action ought to represent realistic possibilities (Tobin and Jaggar 390).

A worry about disagreement arises when considering these four adequacy conditions. The conditions are not purely descriptive; they are laden with normative content. Where there is normative content, there is the possibility of disagreement about the content itself, and how the content should be interpreted and its dictates applied in various contexts. For example, the plausibility condition can be applied in ways that involve idealization or in ways that do not. If it is applied in ways that involve idealization, certain real people will be excluded from the application of the condition. Some people will be seen as too unreasonable to fall within the scope of who ought to be considered with respect to the plausibility of moral reasoning. After all, the point of idealization is to reach a consensus or convergence where it wouldn’t be feasible to do so without it. The reason it wouldn’t be feasible is there are some people who just won’t be able to see that good moral reasoning reaches conclusions with normative force that applies to them. Furthermore, idealizing the plausibility condition will probably exclude some of the other adequacy conditions, such as usability; if the reasoning process involves idealization, some disputants probably will be unable to deploy that reasoning process. If the plausibility condition is applied in a non-idealized way, on the other hand, then it seems like the problems that drive theorists to idealization will crop up. Some disputants may never see why a conclusion has the normative force it does, and they may be unable to follow the reasoning that got there.

For the feasibility condition, there will inevitably be disputes over what constitutes a real possibility, and those disputes will involve substantive moral claims about how people ought to (be able to) live their lives. Those who accept a more conservative conception of the good life will inevitably disagree with those whose conception of the good life conflicts with theirs, and those disputants will subsequently disagree over whose conception represents a real possibility. Real possibilities are those that are livable, but livability is itself open to substantive disagreement, as it concerns how we can live our lives given certain things we value.[2]

Lastly, the nonabuse condition will introduce a level of disagreement. In the case study employed in Tobin and Jagger 2013b, those at the top of the Maasai hierarchy will probably view their exercise of power in the case of coercing women and girls to partake in FGC not as abuse but as mere use. The issue is not whether they have a plausible claim to use of power in this context, but rather what constitutes abuse of power. Judgments of abuse of power are substantive normative judgments about how people ought not to exercise their power over others. There will be disagreement between disputants in these very cases over what constitutes abuse, which introduces a higher order level of moral disagreement.

Tobin and Jaggar provide an interesting and fruitful methodology for investigating forms of moral reasoning used in cross-cultural disputes, among others. A worry arises when assessing the adequacy conditions provided by Tobin and Jaggar, as these conditions are themselves value-laden, and therefore have the potential to introduce moral disagreement at the level of method. There may be ways to alleviate the possibility of higher order disagreement, however. For example, there could be paradigm cases of good moral reasoning that serve to cement proper interpretations and applications for the adequacy conditions. There could be cases where reasonable[3] people would agree that a certain course of action ought to be taken given a certain form of moral reasoning. Those cases could be instances of real world dispute resolution, which retains the spirit of naturalized epistemology, as it avoids lapsing into an a prioristic method of examining thought experiments.

End Notes

[1] Among other kinds of disputes.

[2] Most people will agree that we all value basic things such as survival and all that requires. But there will inevitably be disputes once the basic requirements for survival are met.

[3] Reasonable in the non-technical sense of being sensitive to relevant reasons in discussions.

Works Cited

Haack, Susan. “The Two Faces of Quine’s Naturalism.” Synthese 94.3 (1993): 335-56. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Naturalizing Moral Justification: Rethinking the Method of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013b): 409-39. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Situating Moral Justification: Rethinking the Mission of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013a): 383-408. Web.

Rysiew, Patrick, “Naturalism in Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Tobin, Theresa W. “On Their Own Ground: Strategies of Resistance for Sunni Muslim Women.” Hypatia 22.3 (2007): 152-74. Web.

Quine, W. V. Ontological Relativity, and Other Essays. New York: Columbia UP, 1969. Print.