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Naturalistic Moral Realism and Moral Disagreement: David Copp’s Account

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To enhance the plausibility of naturalistic moral realism, David Copp develops an argument from epistemic defeaters aiming to show that strongly a priori synthetic moral truths do not exist. In making a case for the non-naturalistic position, I locate Copp’s account within the wider literature on peer disagreement; I identify key points of divergence between Copp’s doctrine and conciliatorist doctrines; I introduce the notion of ‘minimal moral competence’; I contend that some plausible benchmarks for minimal moral competence are grounded in substantive moral considerations; and I discuss two forms of spinelessness that Copp’s moral naturalism could result in.

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  1. ‘[N]aturalism is best understood as the view that … moral properties are natural in the sense that they are empirical’ (Copp 2007b, p. 53).

  2. In making this distinction, Copp draws on Field (2000).

  3. Copp’s notion of an ideal agent is explained below.

  4. I have changed Copp’s ‘natural*’ to ‘natural.’ Copp writes in a footnote that he ‘may need to modify this definition in order to deal with a class of problem cases.’ He does not specify which cases he has in mind.

  5. Copp only addresses synthetic moral truths, rather than conceptual truths and analytic truths. If there are any such truths, Copp (2007b, p. 40) grants that they may be strongly a priori.

  6. For other formulations of Independence, see Christensen (2009, p. 758) and Kelly (forthcoming, ms. p. 12).

  7. Christensen (2007b, pp. 199–200) introduces the Extreme Restaurant Case. For Elga’s take on it, see Elga (2007, pp. 490–491).

  8. For an extended discussion of various forms of naturalism and naturalization projects, see Audi (2000).

  9. Copp’s ideal agent, I presume, is never distracted, tired, inebriated, impaired, insincere, etc.

  10. Anti-conciliatorists like Enoch (2010, pp. 974–975) acknowledge not only that one must often revise one’s credence in the direction of one’s interlocutor, but that—even if one justifiably demotes one’s interlocutor on the basis of the disagreement—one might have to adjust one’s credence downward by some degree.

  11. Killoren (2010, p. 17) rightly stresses that standards for epistemic peerhood are domain-specific.

  12. The properties being X’s epistemic peer and possessing minimal moral competence are both non-scalar. But they are neither identical nor co-extensive. Two agents who both lack minimal moral competence may still count as peers in a certain respect. Why introduce a threshold notion of minimal moral competence instead of speaking about degrees of moral competence? The answer is that, in some cases, an agent is best described as having no moral competence, rather than as having little moral competence. Even if I am wrong on this score, nothing in my account depends on it.

  13. For three different ways of formulating relevant scenarios, see Enoch (2010, pp. 970–971). On disagreement with epistemic superiors, see Frances (2010).

  14. In discussing austerity, I am focusing on correctly justified metaethical theses, because philosophers who are not anti-Archimedeans will not typically include first-order moral premises in their metaethical arguments (whether the conclusions of their arguments are correct or incorrect).

  15. Sosa (2010, p. 283 n 7) notes the importance of both having and using relevant concepts and capacities.

  16. For an account of peer disagreement in which justified confidence in one’s beliefs plays a key role, see Lackey (2010).

  17. For an extended analysis of supervenience along the lines sketched here, see Kramer (2009, ch. 10).

  18. I am addressing weak global supervenience, as is Kramer (2009, pp. 211–212). It might be claimed that other forms of supervenience are not substantively moral. Let me address one such suggestion. Some might think that, if the subvening properties are specified in a more-than-minimal sense, then supervenience would be a moral matter. But if it is simply stated that the moral supervenes on the non-moral, perhaps this thesis is purely conceptual. (This line of thought was broached by Frank Jackson in private correspondence.) The latter claim is unconvincing, because, insofar as logic is concerned, moral properties could attach randomly to various non-moral states of affairs without supervening on anything.

  19. For the argument that supervenience is an ethical phenomenon on which I am relying, see Kramer (2009, ch. 10). For a related but problematic discussion, see Enoch (2011, pp. 144–148).

  20. For a succinct and perceptive statement on this issue, see Shafer-Landau (2009, pp. 192–194).

  21. Note Robert Audi’s remark that ‘as we check and re-check our own grounds for a justified belief that p and our responses to them, we tend to increase our justification for believing p, at least where we retain that belief in the light of this effort’ (2011, pp. 20–21, emphasis in the original).

  22. In order to qualify as minimally moral competent, agents obviously need not be perfectly fair and impartial and well-meaning. Still, they must possess those properties at least to some degree.

  23. See the example of disagreement with Foil Hat Guy in Christensen (2011, p. 15).

  24. Non-naturalists need not affirm Positive Condition. They might view even that principle as too conciliatory.

  25. To be sure, Christensen emphasizes that Positive Condition is a scalar principle. ‘[T]he stronger one’s reasons for thinking equally well of the other’s epistemic credentials, the more one should revise one’s beliefs’ (Christensen 2011, p. 16). This scalar reading tallies with my claim that—at the extreme end of the spectrum at which an interlocutor takes issue with all or virtually all of one’s moral beliefs and their justifications, as in the examples I have adduced in the text—one may remain perfectly steadfast while following Positive Condition.

  26. For a related point, as well as extensive discussion about ideally rational agents, see Christensen (2007a, p. 14).

  27. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for Res Publica for urging me to make this distinction.

  28. I impose a constrain of correctness but exclude a constraint of correct justification. That is because, for example, millions of people believe in basic human equality on Biblical grounds. On my view, such religious justifications for human equality are mistaken. But because that moral verdict is correct, certain agents who adhere to a belief in human equality might owe a duty to themselves to stand up vigorously for that belief in some situations. (I do not deny that such a duty might exist even when one holds certain incorrect moral beliefs).

  29. Here, I take no view on whether groups, e.g. minorities, hold claim-rights against particular individuals to censure others who denigrate those groups in various contexts.

  30. There will be myriad cases in which it will be neither ethically nor morally required to voice any indignation. For example, a person held hostage by terrorists would have no duty to upbraid his captors for their depravity.

  31. Moreover, (IA) will no longer be in a position rationally to fulfill his duty-to-himself-to-censure-(IL)-with-pre-adjustment-level-intensity.

  32. For different perspectives on the viability of Moorean arguments, see Kelly (2005), McPherson (2009).


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I am grateful to Robert Audi, David Christensen, Frank Jackson, Matthew Kramer, Gerald Lang, Hallvard Lillehammer, and an anonymous referee for Res Publica for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Mark Hanin.

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Hanin, M. Naturalistic Moral Realism and Moral Disagreement: David Copp’s Account. Res Publica 18, 283–301 (2012).

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