Higher Order Disagreement and Naturalized Moral Epistemology

Introduction

An adequate moral epistemology ought to have the resources to address intercultural moral disagreement. A promising way of doing moral epistemology in light of intercultural disagreement is represented in the work of Theresa Tobin and Alison Jaggar. Naturalized Moral Epistemology (NME) in the form advocated for by Tobin and Jaggar has the potential to address intercultural moral disputes in a fruitful way, because it is designed to evaluate patterns of moral reasoning (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). Tobin and Jaggar introduce adequacy conditions that patterns of moral reasoning must meet in order to bestow moral justification onto their outputs (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b).[1] While Tobin and Jaggar’s NME is designed to address disagreement, the evaluative standards by which they assess patterns of moral reasoning reintroduce the possibility of intractable moral disagreement. The adequacy conditions which inform Tobin and Jaggar’s evaluative standards introduce the possibility of higher order disagreement about their application to particular patterns of moral reasoning.[2] The possibility of higher order disagreement is problematic for Tobin and Jaggar’s NME because their project is designed to address intracultural and intercultural disagreement, and if their evaluative standards reintroduce the possibility of such moral disagreement, their methodology fails to fulfill its purpose. If NME is designed to address a certain class of problems, but those problems are reintroduced at the level of the evaluative standards of NME, then that epistemology is problematic. In this paper, I will present a challenge to Tobin and Jaggar’s NME by showing that their evaluative standards can lead to higher order disagreement. Then I will show how the challenge of higher order disagreement can be met. In section one, I will explain Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions. In section two, I will present the challenge of higher order disagreement. Finally, in section three, I will suggest some strategies dealing with those problems while remaining within the the spirit of Tobin and Jaggar’s research program.

  1. Adequacy Conditions in NME

NME is a method of determining which patterns of moral reasoning can bestow moral justification onto their outputs. The method proceeds by isolating an actual moral dispute, examining the patterns of reasoning employed in that dispute, and assessing those patterns of reasoning in light of four adequacy conditions (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). The adequacy conditions are, plausibility to the disputants, usability by the disputants, non abuse of power and vulnerability by any disputant, and practical feasibility for the disputants The plausibility condition is that justified normative conclusions ought to be intelligible to disputants. The usability condition is that disputants ought to be able to participate in utilized reasoning practices. The non abuse condition is that no disputant can abuse positions of power or positions of vulnerability to gain an upper hand in the dispute. Lastly, the feasibility condition is that proposals ought to represent real possibilities for disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389).

The plausibility condition is based on the idea that moral justification is at least partially a social phenomenon. To justify something morally is to justify something to another. So, for a pattern of moral reasoning to produce justified outputs, morally salient reasons must be understandable by those involved in the social process of justification (Tobin and Jaggar 387). The usability condition is based on the idea that those involved in the social process of justification must be able to fully participate as moral agents, which requires the ability to engage with the patterns of moral reasoning being examined (Tobin and Jaggar 387). The non abuse condition trades on the fact that coercion to do or believe something cannot constitute rational persuasion, so moral reasoning that involves abuse of power over others fails to produce justified outputs (Tobin and Jaggar 388). Finally, the feasibility condition is based on the idea that ought implies can, which means that moral reasoning ought to be action guiding, and for some form of reasoning to be action guiding, it needs to present a plan of action for the relevant situation (Tobin and Jaggar 389).

  1. Higher Order Disagreement

First order moral disagreements are disagreements about moral claims such as, “We ought to redistribute wealth according to the maximin principle” and “We ought not to redistribute wealth according to the maximin principle.” Second or higher order moral disagreements are about the moral reasoning, principles, and values involved in the process of moral justification. For example, “The maximin principle represents a just structure of wealth distribution” and “The maximin principle represents an unjust structure of wealth distribution.” So, higher order disagreement concerns standards of moral justification, the scope and applicability of moral principles, and the factors which are morally salient when assessing first order disagreements.

Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions are evaluative standards by which we should assess if patterns of moral reasoning confer moral justification onto their outputs. Evaluative standards are normative, since they tell us how something ought to be, based on some paradigmatic instance of that thing or set of threshold (upper or lower) conditions. In this case, the adequacy conditions set standards that moral reasoning ought to meet if it is to confer moral justification onto its outputs. Disagreement over Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions is, therefore, disagreement over moral principles, which is higher order moral disagreement.

Parties to moral disagreements can challenge the moral salience of the features picked out by the naturalized moral epistemologist if that party’s pattern of moral reasoning is judged to produce unjustified outputs. The naturalized moral epistemologist will pick out what she believes to be morally salient features of patterns of moral reasoning that either count for or against that form of reasoning according to the adequacy conditions (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Whether or not those features are morally salient will be the crux of higher order moral disagreement.

We can also reframe the worry in terms of the plausibility condition. When the naturalized moral epistemologist claims that some pattern of moral reasoning fails to live up to her evaluative standards, the reasoning the epistemologist uses is a kind of moral reasoning. Since it is a form of moral reasoning, but the rules of the research program of NME, it ought to be vetted according to the adequacy conditions. The worry is that it will never pass the plausibility condition, since the opposing party will dispute the plausibility of the reasoning used by the naturalized moral epistemologist. How can the proponent of NME respond to the disagreement about the plausibility of her own moral reasoning? It seems wrongheaded to just reapply her adequacy conditions to her opponent’s reasoning, since that reasoning is used to dispute the applicability of the adequacy conditions to her opponent’s view. The naturalized epistemologist would be arguing in a circle. So, the challenge is to figure out a way to deal with disagreement at the level of evaluating moral reasoning, while preserving the spirit of the research program proposed by Tobin and Jaggar.

2.1. Feasibility

The challenge of higher order disagreement can be generalized to each of Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy condition. The feasibility condition will be informed by a person’s prior normative commitments, both moral and nonmoral.[3] Feasibility has to do with being able to live according to the outputs of some pattern(s) of moral reasoning, which means that the outputs must represent real possibilities (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Whether or not something is a genuine possibility for people is not an entirely non-normative question. Human action is informed by reasons, which are normative considerations that count for or against decisions and courses of action. So, people must have reasons to adopt a way of life or some course of action. With respect to feasibility, things will count as reasons against the background of a person’s prior normative and non-normative commitments. If somebody has no reason to believe that he or she should act a certain way or adopt a certain way of life, that action or way of life cannot represent a real possibility for that person.[4] For instance, some would consider donating thirty percent of one’s income a real possibility, while others would find it unthinkable. Some people find going vegan a real possibility, while others find it to not only be economically untenable within certain areas, but also antithetical to their own ways of life. For example, in Judaism, eating meat is sanctioned by God in Genesis 3:9, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you.” The reasons informing the feasibility condition would be subject to disagreement by those who interpret the feasibility condition against the background of their own prior commitments.

The Maasai hierarchs will consider their traditions and other institutions, beliefs, and practices that constitute their conception of the good life when assessing whether or not FGC as practiced within their society is morally justified. The hierarchs’ pattern of moral reasoning will be informed by a certain conception of how people in their society, and perhaps in others, ought to live their lives. Those who criticize Maasai society’s FGC practices will presumably find some or all of the hierarchs’ prior commitments implausible. The lifestyle(s) recommended by the hierarchs’ conception of the good life will pick out features of human life that their critics will not consider morally salient with respect to patterns of reasoning aimed at justifying FGC. So, the hierarchs and their critics will find themselves disagreeing at the level of the feasibility condition.

2.2. Non Abuse

Abuse of power is the unjustified use of power. So, the non abuse condition is normative, which means that it can be construed as a moral principle for moral reasoning. The non abuse condition thus introduces the possibility of higher order disagreement as well. The example provided by Tobin and Jaggar for their case study is FGC within the Maasai society (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). The Maasai hierarchs probably believe that the patterns of moral reasoning that they employ in justifying the FGC arrangements for their society do not exploit and abuse the power they have within their society. While the hierarchs’ reasoning may involve claims about their authority over others within their society, and claims about justified coercion grounded in their authority, they would challenge claims that their reasoning involves abuse of their authority and power. So, the hierarchs will not agree that their patterns of reasoning fail the non abuse condition, because they do not think that those with whom they disagree have managed to point out morally salient features of their reasoning that cause it to fail to meet the non abuse condition.

If opponents of the hierarchs argue from feminist grounds that their patterns of moral reasoning assume that gender differences are morally salient such that they provide the means for justifying the current state of affairs with respect to FGC, then the hierarchs will object to the normative principle(s) informing the feminist grounds of their opponents’ critique. The debate becomes a dispute about the normative principle(s) informing feminist critique of their patterns of reasoning. So, we have higher order disagreement about the non abuse condition. In this case, it is a dispute about the morally salient features of the patterns of reasoning employed by the Maasai hierarchs that involve power and authority. If power and authority inform the hierarchs’ patterns of moral reasoning in ways that lack moral salience, the non abuse condition does not apply. But, if their patterns of moral reasoning do involve power and authority in morally salient ways, then they have met the abuse condition, and their moral reasoning fails to produce morally justified outputs.

2.3. Plausibility

While Tobin and Jaggar regard justification as the social activity of giving and requesting relevant reasons for claims, the possibility of higher order disagreement about the plausibility condition remains (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). The Maasai hierarchs’ patterns of moral reasoning will be met with claims of implausibility from their opponents. Those critical of FGC as practiced by the Maasai society will not find the arguments and reasoning given by the hierarchs to be plausible justifications for the practices being defended. However, the reasons put forward by the critics of FGC will not be found to be plausible by the Maasai hierarchs. The disagreement between the hierarchs and their critics will then be about the standards each side employs in assessing the plausibility of the other’s patterns of moral reasoning.

2.4. Usability

The usability condition will face higher order moral disagreement as well. The Maasai hierarchs’ patterns of moral reasoning will not be seen as authoritative by their critics (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). One reason to think that the challenge of higher order disagreement generalizes to the usability condition is that the authoritative clause of the condition seems to collapse into the plausibility condition, insofar as authoritative reasoning is reasoning that generates morally justified outputs. It seems like “authoritative” is being used by Tobin and Jaggar to mean something like, “able to produce morally justified outputs” where outputs are morally justified only if they can be shown to be justified to those affected by them, which is just the plausibility condition (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). If I am on the right track, then there is overlap between the usability condition and the plausibility condition, and the potential for higher order disagreement can be found in that overlap.

  1. Strategies for Avoiding Higher Order Disagreement

Tobin and Jaggar have developed a promising way of evaluating moral reasoning. The potential for disagreement about the evaluative standards by which they assess moral reasoning is not sufficient to cast doubt on the fruitfulness of their research program. In this section, I will develop some strategies for dealing with higher order disagreement about the adequacy conditions advocated for by Tobin and Jaggar (2013b).

First, when engaging in Tobin and Jaggar’s form of NME, the potential for intractable disagreement is lessened if those assessing the forms of reasoning are embedded within the culture whose practices are ultimately being critiqued, such as the Maasai society and FGC. Not only does this avoid the possibility of hermeneutic injustice, since those embedded within the Maasai culture share the same language and conceptual repertoire with the Maasai hierarchs, but it also avoids the potential for ethnocentric bias (Fricker 2014).[5] Furthermore, we should privilege the testimony of those affected by the culture’s practices and institutions which are the subject of moral critique. Moral deference is owed to victims of injustice, because they have a special insight into what it’s like to suffer the particular injustice that they are victims of. Epistemic acquaintance with properties, individuals, and states of affairs provides insight into those properties, individuals, and states of affairs that those who lack acquaintance with them cannot have (Howell 2013; Russell 1912). Those subject to injustice in the Maasai society will provide valuable testimony that can be used to assess the patterns of moral reasoning that are intended to justify FGC, because they are acquainted with the injustices they suffer, along with the consequences of those injustices (Thomas 1993).[6]

A worry now arises about how to distinguish those within Maasai society who are affected by FGC in morally salient ways from those who may be affected by it, but not in morally salient ways.[7] What is needed is a way to pick out those in the Maasai society who suffer  injustice by virtue of permitting or prohibiting FGC. I propose that we have some kind of faculty of moral perception, which includes the ability to detect moral properties instantiated by certain states of affairs (McBrayer 2009). Our moral sense is analogous to perception insofar as it, like perceptual modalities, provide us with non-inferentially justified beliefs about the (moral) world (McBrayer 2009; Audi 2013).[8] Our moral sense differs from our other perceptual modalities insofar as some emotions can be forms of moral seeing, whereas emotions tend not to be as highly regarded in the epistemology of sense perception (Srinivasan 2014; Jaggar 1989).

We have not yet avoided the potential for moral disagreement at the level of judgments caused by the moral sense. What is needed is a model of moral education, which is a method of finely tuning the moral sense so that it can help us detect the morally salient features of states of affairs, such as injustices being inflicted upon people. Elizabeth Anderson in “The Lindley Lecture” provides a model of moral progress which can be utilized for the purpose of moral education (Anderson 2014). Anderson shows how moral progress is possible by examining the patterns of moral reasoning employed by the abolitionist movement in Britain. Social movements prove to be one of the most effective vehicles of moral progress on Anderson’s analysis (Anderson 2014). My suggestion is that those engaged in Tobin and Jaggar’s form of NME ought to study cases of moral progress such as the one Anderson examines. By studying those cases, one can finely tune one’s moral sense so that it is sensitive to the morally salient features of those situations, and situations resembling them in relevant ways.

Now the naturalized moral epistemologist has some background moral knowledge about the morally salient features of certain contexts, against which she can examine other situations that resemble the ones she has studied. She will be able to pick out the morally salient features of new situations insofar as they relevantly resemble those she has examined. Those suffering from various injustices can now be identified by virtue of a moral sense tuned to the morally salient features of situations which resemble the one currently being examined. Once the victims of injustice are identified, they can provide the naturalized moral epistemologist with vital testimony about the moral status of the cultural institution or practice being critiqued (Thomas 1993).[9]

Once the naturalized moral epistemologist is able to reliably identify victims of injustice, she can overcome the possibility of disagreement about the non abuse condition. Victims of the abuse of power will be identifiable because the epistemologist has examined situations in which people are victims of similar kinds of abuses of power. She can then figure out which pattern of moral reasoning involves an abuse of power in the case she examines. For the feasibility condition, disagreement about people’s prior commitments will persist, but the epistemologist can now see who is victimized by the influence of those commitments on patterns of moral reasoning. She can then determine whether or not some pattern of moral reasoning involves commitments which will victimize some parties to the disagreement being examined. The usability condition presents similar problems as the plausibility condition. Regarding the plausibility condition, the potential for disagreement can be avoided since the epistemologist can pick out victims of epistemic injustices that are the product of the pattern of moral reasoning being examined. If the Maasai hierarchs claim that their critics are employing standards of evidence with which they disagree, this raises a meta-epistemological issue which I will address in the next section.

3.1. A Meta-Epistemological Worry Addressed

One worry regarding the plausibility condition, which can also be rephrased as a problem for the entire strategy that I suggested for dealing with higher order disagreement, is that the disputants will claim that their critics are using standards of evidence with which they disagree. This is a challenge to the naturalized moral epistemologist to provide non-question-begging reasons to think that the moral judgments she makes, based on a finely tuned moral sense, are reliable. In other words, why would my strategy for finely tuning the moral sense of the naturalized moral epistemologist produce reliable judgments about who is and who is not the victim of injustice in particular situations?

There are two ways for the proponent of NME to address this worry. First, what is being asked is strikingly similar to the sorts of questions asked by traditional epistemologists who concern themselves with refuting the skeptic. One way of motivating skepticism is by presenting cases of somebody who is unmoved by any dialectical considerations for some common-sense position, such as the mind-independent reality of the external world, or the reliability of our senses. The meta-epistemological challenge resembles the structure of this sort of project, insofar as it asks for some reasons that are external to the set of judgments produced by the procedure being evaluated to believe that the procedure produces reliable judgments. In this case, the challenge assumes that the naturalized moral epistemologist who undergoes moral education according to the guidelines I lay out must provide a non-moral reason to believe that her moral sense is a reliable way of forming moral beliefs, detecting morally salient properties, such as somebody being the victim of an injustice, and correct moral judgments. However, this assumption is akin to asking the naturalized epistemologist who studies perception to provide a priori justification for the claim that perception is a reliable means of forming perceptual beliefs and judgments. Since the naturalized epistemologist eschews the structure of theorizing assumed by this meta-epistemological challenge, and because that eschewal is built into the very research project of both naturalized moral epistemology and naturalized epistemology of perception, the person pressing this challenge is begging the question in favor of a more traditional conception of epistemology.[10] The naturalized epistemologist who studies perception eschews a priori theorizing about the epistemic credentials of perceptual modalities, and analogously, the naturalized moral epistemologist should eschew the demand for a wholly non-moral means of evaluating moral judgments.

The second way to address the challenge is by questioning the assumption that we need non-question-begging reasons to think that the naturalized moral epistemologist can pick out instances of injustice. When it comes to moral epistemology, some questions just need to be begged. We must rely on moral reasons to assess our patterns of moral reasoning, but while this begs the question, it does not do so in an epistemically damaging way (Setiya 76-84). Similarly, when assessing observational beliefs or judgments, we must rely on previous observations that we take to be reliable perceptions, and determine those reliable perceptions resemble the observational beliefs or judgments in epistemically salient ways.[11] For NME, we must rely on past moral judgments that we take to be reliable to assess moral reasoning and moral judgments or beliefs in an analogous way. By utilizing my strategy for finely tuning one’s moral sense, the naturalized moral epistemologist can produce reliable moral judgments which not only aid in dealing with disagreement, but also serve as paradigmatic moral judgments, against which moral reasoning can be assessed. Those paradigmatic moral judgments constitute the basis for the applying Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions to particular cases.

Conclusion

I have examined the naturalized framework for doing moral epistemology proposed by Tobin and Jaggar, and found the potential for a problem that is left unaddressed. I presented a challenge to the adequacy conditions by which Tobin and Jaggar assess particular instances or patterns of moral reasoning. If the adequacy conditions are normative, they aim to pick out morally salient features of moral reasoning that either tells for or against the ability of that reasoning to produce justified outputs. However, parties to moral disagreements will challenge the moral salience of the features that the NME proponent picks out. So, Tobin and Jaggar’s framework must include a way to address this higher order disagreement about their evaluative standards. I presented the sketch of a method of moral education for the naturalized moral epistemologist that finely tunes her faculty of moral sense in a way that allows her to reliably identify victims of injustice(s). She can then use the testimony of those victims to aid her in identifying the morally salient aspects of the patterns of moral reasoning which she is examining. I then examined a meta-epistemological challenge to my framework for moral education, and concluded that it either begged the question against NME, or assumes that some questions ought not to be begged when doing moral epistemology. Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions remain fruitful ways of evaluating patterns of moral reasoning.

Endnotes

[1] Many things are the bearers of moral justification, such as judgments, beliefs, idea, thoughts, and behaviors. I use “outputs” to cover the set of bearers of moral justification.

[2] The thick/thin difference is irrelevant here, since on the thick reading, the contents of the conditions will be loaded with the normative contents believed by the disagreeing parties, and on the thin reading the conditions will have standards of applicability informed by the moral standards held by the disagreeing parties. Higher order disagreement obtains regardless of whether it’s within the contents of the conditions themselves, or their applicability conditions.

[3] Normative commitments that are not moral include aesthetic, cultural, epistemic, and prudential commitments, among others.

[4] This also follows from the plausibility condition, since a pattern of moral reasoning cannot generate moral justification for people who have no reason to adopt that pattern of reasoning. However, feasibility also includes prudential reasons.

[5] Assuming the readers of this paper are not from the Maasai society. Assessing a very different society from our own introduces the potential for bias.

[6] The testimony must be relevant to FGC in this case, so those who are affected by FGC are those whose testimony is most relevant.

[7] For example, girls and women who are cut vs. men who find the end result of FGC aesthetically pleasing and desirable in a potential spouse.

[8] See Huemer 2008 for a critique of the idea of moral perception and a defense of an intuitionist epistemology. I suspect that talk of moral perception or sense vs. moral intuition is superfluous to the point I am making about moral education as a means of picking out instances of injustice. Both epistemologies seem compatible with the view of moral education that I advocate for in this paper.

[9] They can also engage in the process of NME alongside or in place of the naturalized moral epistemologist, assuming they themselves are not a practitioner of NME.

[10] Enoch and Schechter in their paper, “How are Belief-Forming Methods Justified?” defend a similar view which takes basic sources of evidence to be justified by virtue of their role in a project in which thinkers are rationally required to engage.

[11] I use “we” to pick out anybody engaged in the process of naturalized moral or non-moral epistemology.

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