What Pessimism about Moral Deference Means for Disagreement


Many writers have recently argued that there is something distinctively problematic about sustaining moral beliefs on the basis of others’ moral views. Call this claim pessimism about moral deference. Pessimism about moral deference, if true, seems to provide an attractive way to argue for a bold conclusion about moral disagreement: moral disagreement generally does not require belief revision. Call this claim steadfastness about moral disagreement. Perhaps the most prominent recent discussion of the connection between moral deference and moral disagreement, due to Alison Hills, uses pessimism about the former to argue for steadfastness about the latter. This paper reveals that this line of thinking, and others like it, are unsuccessful. There is no way to argue from a compelling version of pessimism about moral deference to the conclusion of steadfastness about moral disagreement. The most plausible versions of pessimism about moral deference have only very limited implications for moral disagreement.

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  1. 1.

    McGrath (2011, 115), Mogensen (2017, 5), and Howell (2014, 394) argue for framing pessimism as a thesis about deference rather than testimony.

  2. 2.

    For the purposes of this paper, I set aside non-cognitivist views of moral judgment and refer to moral judgments as ‘beliefs.’ See Hopkins (2007, 617-8) for reasons to doubt that non-cognitivism offers a distinctive, plausible vindication of pessimism.

  3. 3.

    Howell (2014, 390) argues for the possibility of deference to one’s own past or future beliefs. I set this complication aside.

  4. 4.

    See, for example, Lackey (2008, 2010), Christensen (2011, 8-9) and Elga (2007, 488-90).

  5. 5.

    This line of argument is developed further in McGrath (2011, 118-20) and Decker & Groll (2014, 71-2).

  6. 6.

    A nearby strategy stresses expertise; see McGrath (2011, 126-30).

  7. 7.

    Conciliationists differ as to what it means to be “reliable.” Elga (2007, 490) emphasizes accuracy; Christensen (2011, 15) asks whether others are well-informed and likely to have reasoned well. My discussion is neutral between these options.

  8. 8.

    See Hopkins (2007, 620-1) and McGrath (2011, 129-30).

  9. 9.

    McGrath (2009, 323) is likely an exception. But note that McGrath (2011, 129) offers distinct reasons to look beyond the reliability strategy.

  10. 10.

    Mogensen expresses doubts about the “true self” and the value of authenticity (2017, 15–6).

  11. 11.

    Jones (1999, 57) quotes Wolff only to refute him; Mogensen (2017) expresses skepticism toward both value of authenticity and pessimism about moral deference.

  12. 12.

    According to Hills, even deference regarding a proposition of the form q is why p does not put a person in a position to grasp the reasons why p, and therefore does not suffice to provide understanding (2009, 101).

  13. 13.

    Cf. Christensen (2009, 763).

  14. 14.

    Though Hills (2010) argues against suspending judgment in response to disagreement, she does not take a clear position on mere reductions in confidence.

  15. 15.

    By ‘apparent understanding,’ I mean the state that is exactly like understanding except that it is not factive.

  16. 16.

    Hazlett (2015) raises an important objection to this claim: couldn’t a seeker of moral understanding frequently begin her search through deference, and then seek to turn deferential beliefs into understanding?

  17. 17.

    See, for instance, Hills’s case of the Knowledgeable Extremist (2009, 115).

  18. 18.

    But see Mogensen (2017, 12-15) for objections.

  19. 19.

    Thanks to Declan Smithies for this objection.

  20. 20.

    A caveat: on most models of this sort, disagreements requiring credence 1.0 in an opponent’s belief will also require outright belief that p. They will, then, require deference. But the most plausible forms of pessimism allow that extreme cases (as when a child defers to a parent) make moral deference appropriate. Cases that rationalize credence 1.0 in an opponent’s view are liable to seem extreme in just this way.


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Fritz, J. What Pessimism about Moral Deference Means for Disagreement. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 121–136 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-017-9860-8

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  • Moral disagreement
  • Moral deference
  • Testimony
  • Epistemology of disagreement