Contingency inattention: against causal debunking in ethics


It is a philosophical truism that we must think of others as moral agents, not merely as causal or statistical objects. But why? I argue that this follows from the best resolution of an antinomy between our experience of morality as necessarily binding on the will and our knowledge that all moral beliefs originate in contingent histories. We can address this antinomy only by understanding moral deliberation via interpersonal relationships, which simultaneously vindicate and constrains morality’s bind on the will. This means that moral agency is fundamentally social. I model an attitude toward our causal nature on sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of ‘civil inattention’; our social practice of agency requires that we give minimal attention to the contingent origins of moral judgments in ourselves and others. Understood this way, seeing ourselves as moral agents requires avoiding appeal to causal aetiology to settle substantive moral disagreement.

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  1. 1.

    I owe this framing of my project to Rima Basu, whose paper at the 2018 Pacific APA in San Diego helped me see a thread running among various disordered philosophical homespuns littering my mind. Along with contributing to my Kantian anxieties, it was Rima who fingered Sherlock Holmes as the prime suspect. See Basu (2019).

  2. 2.

    I’ve previously discussed psychological debunking like Greene’s in other places, like Rini (2016, 2017a) and Rini and Bruni (2017). You can usefully think of this paper as an attempt to make good on some of the dialectical rumors I’ve previously let slip.

  3. 3.

    There is a substantial philosophical literature on whether knowing the causal origins of a belief should count to undermine it. See e.g. White (2010) and Srinivasan (2019). I discuss this for ethics in particular in Rini (2013, 2016).

  4. 4.

    The distinction appears in several places. I find Kahane (2011) most helpful. For more on how I think the distinction works, see the final sections of Rini (2016).

  5. 5.

    For interpretation of this rather difficult part of Kant, see e.g. Allison (1990) and Vaida (2009).

  6. 6.

    Kant (1785/2002, Ak 4:455–456). My reading of Kant on these points is heavily indebted to Korsgaard (1996a).

  7. 7.

    Attempts to exempt certain moral judgments—such as utilitarian axioms—are tendentious. See de Lazari-Radek and Singer (2012) and objections by Kahane (2014) and Rini (2016).

  8. 8.

    Here I am merely echoing a thought you can find in a number of philosophers of broadly Kantian persuasion, especially Nagel (1986) and Korsgaard (1996b).

  9. 9.

    Arguments of this sort are sometimes framed as objections to the metaphysics of moral realism. But they are probably better understood as epistemological objections, which kick up untenable skeptical worries for value realists. See Street (2006) and McGrath (2008).

  10. 10.

    Setiya continues: “We must hold that, at the most basic level, nonmoral evidence supports particular moral beliefs—ones that tend to be correct—or that such beliefs are justified without evidence. Of course, there is no guarantee that we are in the right. Perhaps our interlocutors’ beliefs are justified, while ours are not. We have no way to address that question that is independent of whether their beliefs are true. But so it goes. There are no guarantees in the epistemology of any beliefs. We do the best we can” (Setiya 2010, p. 217) (‘Does Moral Theory Corrupt Youth?’).

  11. 11.

    Olson (2014). For detail on my worries about Olson’s positive view, see my review of the book, Rini (2017b).

  12. 12.

    I am obviously indebted in this section to Darwall (2006). Less obviously, though just as certainly, I owe much to de Beauvoir (1948) (alas, exegetical unpacking of the latter debt will have to wait for another day).

  13. 13.

    As Springer (2013, p. 30) puts a similar point: “Our understanding of the social is informed neither by the causal third-person stance of scientific observation nor by the reflective first-person stance of free and reasoned deliberation. In attending to our sociality, we experience such Kantian dichotomies as particularly hollow”.

  14. 14.

    Two contemporary philosophers who’ve immensely enrichened this Humean point are Arpaly (2003) and Calhoun (1989, 2004).

  15. 15.

    Philosophers have made surprisingly little use of Goffman. A notable exception is David Velleman, though he draws more on another of Goffman’s books, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). In part due to the shared influence from Goffman, some of what I say here overlaps with Velleman’s How We Get Along (2009).

  16. 16.

    For a related set of ideas, see Calhoun (2000).

  17. 17.

    Jonathan Haidt, citing empirical evidence, says that “If you are able to honestly examine the moral arguments in favour of slavery and genocide (along with the much stronger arguments against them), then you are likely to be either a psychopath or a philosopher” (Haidt and Bjorklund 2008, p. 196).

  18. 18.

    Truth-indifferent causal etiology is the standard form of global debunking in metaethics; see Mackie (1973), Harman (1977) and Joyce (2006). This is the same argument form used selectively in ethics by Greene (2008).


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Thanks to audiences who sat through this at the 2018 Bled Philosophical Conference in Slovenia, the ‘Ways of Knowing in Ethics’ conference at Simon Fraser University, and the 2019 Pacific APA. Thanks especially to my amazing commenters at the last: Rima Basu and Jeff Sebo. And thanks as well to Shamik Dasgupta, whose encouragement kept me from committing this to the flames.

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Correspondence to Regina Rini.

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Rini, R. Contingency inattention: against causal debunking in ethics. Philos Stud 177, 369–389 (2020) doi:10.1007/s11098-019-01397-8

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  • Moral agency
  • Debunking
  • Contingency
  • Metaethics
  • Moral psychology