Many prominent ethicists, including Shelly Kagan, John Rawls, and Thomas Scanlon, accept a kind of epistemic modesty thesis concerning our capacity to carry out the project of ethical theorizing. But it is a thesis that has received surprisingly little explicit and focused attention, despite its widespread acceptance. After explaining why the thesis is true, I argue that it has several implications in metaethics, including, especially, implications that should lead us to rethink our understanding of Reductive Realism. In particular, the thesis of epistemic modesty in ethics implies a kind of epistemic modesty about the metaphysical nature of ethics, if Reductive Realism about the metaphysical nature of ethics is true, and it implies that normative concepts are indispensable to practical deliberation in a way that answers an influential objection to Reductive Realism from Jonathan Dancy, David Enoch, William FitzPatrick, and Derek Parfit.
KeywordsNormative ethics Metaethics Metaphilosophy Normative Concepts Reductive Realism Robust Realism
Special thanks to David Copp, Terence Cuneo, Alexander Dietz, Stephen Finlay, Joe Horton, Nathan Robert Howard, Tanya Kostochka, Janet Levin, Michael Milona, Mark Schroeder, Caleb Perl, Abelard Podgorski, Ralph Wedgwood, and Daniel Wodak for insightful feedback on various drafts of this paper. Thanks also to audiences at the USC Speculative Society and National Autonomous University of Mexico for helpful comments.
- Boyd, R. (1988). How to be a Moral Realist. In G. Sayre-McCord (Ed.), Essays on Moral Realism (pp. 181–228). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
- Dancy, J. (2006). Nonnaturalism. In D. Copp (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Dunaway, B. (Manuscript). “The Metaphysical Conception of Realism”. Available at http://www.personal.umich.edu/~dunaway/MetaphysicalConception_MT2014.pdf.
- Fitzpatrick, W. (2008). Robust ethical realism, non-naturalism, and normativity. Oxford Studies in Metaethics, 3, 159–205.Google Scholar
- Gibbard, A. (2014). Meaning and Normativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Heathwood, C. (2013). Reductionism in ethics. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
- Horton, J. (forthcoming). The all of nothing problem. The Journal of Philosophy. Google Scholar
- Jackson, F. (1987). Group morality. In J. J. C. Smart, P. Pettit, R. Sylvan, & J. Norman (Eds.), Metaphysics and Morality: Essays in Honour of J.J.C. Smart. Oxford: B. Blackwell.Google Scholar
- Jackson, F. (1998). From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defence of Conceptual Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Kagan, S. (1998). Normative Ethics. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
- Laskowski, N. (2015). Non-analytical naturalism and the nature of normative thought: A reply to parfit. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy. http://jesp.org/articles/download/nonanalytical-naturalism.pdf.
- McMahan, J. (2016). Torture and method in moral philosophy. In S. Anderson & M. Nussbaum (Eds.), Torture, Law, and War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- McPherson, T. (2008). Metaethics and the autonomy of morality. Philosophers’ Imprint, 8(6), 1–16.Google Scholar
- Rawls, J. (1972). A Theory of Justice. Wotton-under-Edge: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
- Ross, J. (2013). Actualism, possibilism, and beyond. In M. Timmons (Ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Scanlon, T. (1998). What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Schaffer, J. (2009). On what grounds what. In D. Manley, D. J. Chalmers, & R. Wasserman (Eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology (pp. 347–383). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Schneewind, J. B. (1977). Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Wotton-under-Edge: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
- Schroeder, M. (forthcoming). Normative ethics and metaethics. In T. McPherson and D. Plunkett (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Metaethics.Google Scholar
- Sidgwick, H. (1907). The Methods of Ethics. Hackett.Google Scholar
- Taurek, J. (1977). Should the numbers count? Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(4), 293–316.Google Scholar
- Timmons, M. (2012). Moral Theory: An Introduction. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
- Walzer, M. (1992). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic.Google Scholar