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Epistemic modesty in ethics

“Working out the terms of moral justification is an unending task”.

Thomas Scanlon (1998: 361)

“…the process of evaluation and justification [of theories in ethics] can perhaps never be completely finished”.

Shelly Kagan (1998: 16)

“Taking [ethical theorizing] to the limit, one seeks the conception, or plurality of conceptions, that would survive the rational consideration of all feasible conceptions and all rational arguments for them. We cannot, of course, actually do this…”.

John Rawls (1974: 289)


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.

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  1. 1.

    As McMahan (2016) notes, in the context of a discussion of the role of cases in ethics, “Hypothetical examples, even when used as a means of understanding the most serious of moral issues, have been deployed by philosophers at least since Plato appealed to the ring of Gyges…”.

  2. 2.

    For some defenses of actualism, see Goldman (1976), Sobel (1976), Jackson and Pargetter (1986), and Goble (1993). For some defenses of possibilism, see Goldman (1976), Greenspan (1978), Humberstone (1983), Feldman (1986), and Zimmerman (2008). For some defenses of other views on the topic, see Portmore (2011), Ross (2013), and Timmerman (2015).

  3. 3.

    See also Regan (1980).

  4. 4.

    See Jackson (1987) and especially Dietz (2016).

  5. 5.

    Ross (2006) appears to highlight a related phenomenon. “…in general, the more we reflect on questions of ethical theory, the greater is the number of ethical theories among which our credence is divided. What initially appears to be a single ethical theory often turns out to be specifiable in a number of ways, each of which has some plausibility. And when a problem arises for an initial formulation of a theory, it is often possible to solve this problem by modifying the theory in any of several ways, revealing once more a multiplicity of theories, each having some degree of plausibility".

  6. 6.

    In a similar spirit, Tannsjo (2015: xi) writes, “It is not possible to show that a moral principle is true in the abstract. Moral principles always surprise us in concrete applications”.

  7. 7.

    See Carlson (1995) for a striking illustration of refinements it is possible to make to existing ethical theories, particularly ethical theories in the tradition of consequentialism.

  8. 8.

    While intuitions about cases would seem to play a major role in licensing beliefs about comprehensive ethical theories on the method of cases, it seems open to friends of the method of cases to also admit that consistency, generality, internal and external support, and other epistemically relevant features of theories might factor into such licensing. Thanks to anonymous referee for inviting me to speak to this issue.

  9. 9.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me to clarify this point, and thanks to Caleb Perl for help with doing so.

  10. 10.

    See Schroeder (2006).

  11. 11.

    See Taurek (1977), Kamm (1998), and Walden (2014) for a sampling of one such line of debate.

  12. 12.

    Moreover, as the second epigraph of this paper indicates, it’s not clear that Rawls (1974: 289) doesn’t accept epistemic modesty in ethics. He writes, “Taking this process to the limit, one seeks the conception, or plurality of conceptions, that would survive the rational consideration of all feasible conceptions and all rational arguments for them. We cannot, of course, actually do this…” It’s true that he goes on to write, “…but we can do what seems like the next best thing, namely, to characterize the structures of the predominant conceptions familiar to us from the philosophical tradition, and to work out the further refinements of these that strike us at most promising." But even if one were to think that Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics, and other “predominant conceptions familiar to us from the [Western] philosophical tradition” were exhaustive of the space of conceptions available to us for rational consideration, the illustration of the method of cases in Sect. 2.1 still suggests that there is no limit to possible refinements to these views that would strike as “most promising”.

  13. 13.

    War is a familiar recent topic of intense interest that seems to expand our sense of the space of possible views in ethics. But new and fascinating topics seem to crop up in ethics regularly, at least on our best days. See Horton (forthcoming) for a discussion of an underappreciated topic that seems likely to powerfully further illustrate this same phenomenon.

  14. 14.

    See Walzer (1992).

  15. 15.

    Bass (2004).

  16. 16.

    See Moellendorf (2008).

  17. 17.

    MacAskill (2016: 1000) echoes a similar sentiment: “Despite thousands of years of thought, we are little closer to knowing what constitutes a good life than when we started. Indeed, progress in moral philosophy seems to have found more problems than it has solved. This is true, for example, of progress in population ethics and animal ethics. It may even be that, given the difficulty of the subject matter, we should never be certain of one particular normative view—our normative evidence and experiences will always be limited, always open to many reasonable interpretations, and there will always be judgment calls involved in weighing different epistemic virtues”.

  18. 18.

    See Schneewind (1977), Nakano-Okuno (2011), Parfit (2011), Phillips (2011), de Lazari-Radek and Singer (2014), Shaver (2014), Hurka (2014), and Crisp (2015).

  19. 19.

    See Gibbard (2014) for doubts about such an assumption.

  20. 20.

    See McKeown-Green et al. (2015).

  21. 21.

    Compare Jackson (1998) and Shafer-Landau (2003), who understand reductive realism in the metaphysical ideology of identity, to Chang (2013) and Schroeder (2007), who understand it in the ideology of metaphysical constitution, ground, and analysis, and who are broadly in line with contemporary metaphysicians like Bennett (2011) and Schaffer (2009). See also Schroeder (2006) and Dunaway (Manuscript) for discussions of the relationship between reductivism and realism.

  22. 22.

    For canonical defenses of reductive naturalism see Richard Boyd (1988) and David Brink (1989).

  23. 23.

    ‘The Dispensability Objection’ is a wink to ‘The Indispensability Objection’ from Enoch, who argues that we ought to conclude that there are primitive normative properties since we can’t avoid committing ourselves to the truth of them.

  24. 24.

    Note that proponents of the Dispensability Objection do not unpack the sense in which they think reductivism implies that we can dispense with using normative concepts. Since the true reductive theory is merely a metaphysical thesis about the nature of normative properties, it is hard to see why proponents of the Dispensability Objection would think that it implies that we psychologically can stop using normative concepts, let alone replace using them with non-normative concepts. It’s true that reductive theories are often packaged with auxiliary hypotheses about the nature of normative language, thought, and concepts, but strictly speaking, reductive theories do not obviously have anything to say about normative concepts and the psychological possibility of dispensing with them. It is for this reason that I am understanding the sense of ‘can’ at issue in the argument as ‘can correctly’, which I am also understanding broadly as ‘without suffering any kind of loss or committing any kind of error’.

  25. 25.

    For another, less ecumenical response to the Dispensability Objection, see Laskowski (2015).

  26. 26.

    The decision to treat knowledge as the norm on dispensing with normative concepts is incidental. Reductivism doesn’t imply anything at all about any of our rational attitudes towards it.

  27. 27.

    It might be said that this is where Parfit’s (2011: 368) objections to “hard naturalism,” or reductivist views that accept the dispensability of normative concepts, kick in. In discussing Brandt, Parfit makes it clear (375) that his problem with such views is that claims involving normative concepts ultimately come out as “trivial.” But Parfit either means that such claims would be trivial for creatures like us in a world like ours or not. If he means the former, it’s hard to see why reductivists (hard or otherwise) should worry about what Parfit has to say, since such reductivists can simply claim that because analyses can be non-obvious, claims involving normative concepts aren’t guaranteed to be trivial. If he means the latter, it’s still hard to see why reductivists should worry. After all, the conditions under which claims involving normative concepts would be trivial for God or highly intelligent aliens are far from clear. Moreover, again, it’s even less clear why it would be a problem if such claims were trivial for them, which is precisely what we were hoping to find in this appeal to Parfit’s objections to hard naturalism.

  28. 28.

    See Heathwood (2013).


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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.

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Laskowski, N. Epistemic modesty in ethics. Philos Stud 175, 1577–1596 (2018).

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  • Normative ethics
  • Metaethics
  • Metaphilosophy
  • Normative Concepts
  • Reductive Realism
  • Robust Realism