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Moral disagreement and moral knowledge


To: Sofyan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral disagreement and moral knowledge
Date: 1 November 2005 12:57

Dear Sofyan,

Thank you for your email of 25 October, with your University of London essay, 'Moral disagreement and the possibility of moral knowledge'.

This is an excellent piece of work. You have mounted a strong case for the view that claims about the 'pervasiveness of moral disagreement' as exaggerated, and that 'there is a core of common moral beliefs at the foundational level'.

Like you I believe that there is a lot less real moral disagreement than has been claimed, and that what disagreements that remain do not threaten an objective account of the basis for moral judgements.

One issue I would raise is whether, as Dancy claims, moral knowledge is 'grounded in knowledge of moral principles'. As you say, this approach is held to be consistent with either a 'particularist' or 'generalist' view. Particularists are 'first aware' of particular facts and then generalize from these, while generalists think that we first learn general truths then apply them to particular cases.

One might question whether there is not a third alternative to the particularist and generalist, as defined in Dancy's terms. How important are principles to the moral objectivist, really? An alternative would be the view that moral judgement is thoroughly 'situational', a matter of developing the right kind of sensitivity to moral considerations, rather than a matter of learning (in one way or another) to relate particular cases to moral principles. On this view, moral judgement involves, or implies, 'ethical dialogue' between moral agents, each of whom has different values or wants different things.

Amongst the things that moral agents want or value are ways of life, which they would ideally like to see others follow, ideals of how human beings should live and behave.

It would be difficult to deny that there is evidently very large disagreement in this sense - e.g. between followers of different faiths, or of radically different political creeds like socialism and conservatism. How this arises, or why people are attracted to one set of ideals rather than another is a fascinating question. If we did know the answer, while this would lead to greater mutual understanding, it is unlikely that this would reduce the distance between contrasting ideals.

Although respect for human life, valuing friendship, as you say, are common amongst all human societies, I would argue that these are not 'moral principles' but rather the fundamental way in which we relate to one another, prior to particular or general ethical 'knowledge', the framework presupposed by moral dialogue.

Many clashes are not clashes of principles, or indeed different ideals or ways of life, but simply different ways of seeing the same situation. One of the tragedies of the human condition is the difficulty in reaching ethical agreement about the deepest issues that concern us, even when we share the same general moral outlook.

The difference between ethical dialogue and science is therefore greater than Williams claims. Ethics is a matter for personal judgement, and each person sees the same facts differently. The greater obstacles in the way of reaching disagreement do not, however, threaten the objectivity of ethics.

Ewing greatly overstates the case in attempting to trace ethical disagreements back to differences in non-ethical beliefs. The logical conclusion would be that we all ultimately agree in our ethical beliefs, but just haven't realized this yet! That seems far fetched in the extreme. It is good to emphasize that factual disagreement plays an important role. But why should we be so afraid of fundamental ethical disagreement? We should be afraid only if we believe that the objectivity of ethics consists in the existence of 'ethical objects', supra-temporal Platonic moral forms which apply to all places and all times.

This negative conclusion is not 'relativity', any more than it is evidence of moral relativity that people who share the same general moral outlook disagree irreconcilably over ethical questions. Ethical judgement is very difficult and each of us ultimately has to make our own decision.

You raise an interesting question near the end of your essay, whether moral 'truth' implies validity in all possible worlds. I would argue that the necessity for moral dialogue, and the metaphysical considerations which underlie this, does imply that the basic framework of moral dialogue - respect for the other - applies to all self-conscious beings, at all places and times. In other parts of the universe there may be moral attitudes and practices which we could barely comprehend, or would be incapable of comprehending. All human being share the same nature. This is important in any investigation of ethics. But I would like to think that it would be possible to engage beings in moral dialogue who did not share our nature.

All the best,