Notes on Audi’s Moral Knowledge & Ethical Character, pt I: Moral Epistemology

I’ve frequently criticized virtue ethics on this blog, so it seems worthwhile to comment on Robert Audi’s theories on moral realism, which seek to integrate an Aristotelian virtue conception into an otherwise intuitionistic Kantianism (or Kantian intuitionism; Audi admits either description of his view works, but as his epistemology is intuitionistic for the most part, and the normative results are Kantian, I will refer to it as the former). To that end I will offer a review of his Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, a book I picked up due to my skepticism of virtue ethics (and so of the ethical character in “and Ethical Character”) and my profound respect for Robert Audi, who I believe to be the most important moral theorist currently working, due to his revival of intuitionism through application of developments in contemporary epistemology.

The book is actually a collection of mostly previously published but massively influential essays, expertly tied together in a concluding essay that argues for a value-grounded intuitionism with Kantian normative principles and an Aristotelian take on moral psychology. Audi divides the book into four sections: moral epistemology; ethical concepts and moral realism; character, responsibility and virtue; and practical reason and the foundations of ethics. My posts on this book will be broken up by these sections.

Section I: Moral Epistemology:
“Internalism and Externalism in Moral Epistemology”:
Audi argues that moral epistemology would be benefitted by introducing a distinction between internal and external in moral justification. Internalist moral justification would entail that moral justification can be provided by the introspective accessibility of the validity of a belief – while externalist justification is the negation of the internalist thesis, likely in an appeal to reliabilist justification. Kantianism is an internalist view because the application of the categorical imperative is reflective, while utilitarianism is externalist because the consequences of an action are not introspectively accessible but rather are determined by “external evidence about the world” (15).

Audi notes that internalist and externalist justification can be applied to various theses in metaethics, save for the concept of good moral character, which Audi notes causes difficulty for externalism. The idea is that good moral character is about doing the right thing because it is the right thing, which suggests interalist justification. It seems that there should be a “unity constraint” when evaluating morality; it should seem strange to evaluate moral acts and moral character through different methods of justification, as this would suggest an oddly shaped moral realm. Such a unity constraint leads one to favor interalist justification for moral acts and character, and as Kantianism is well suited for this while utilitarianism is not, Kantianism seems a better moral theory for its coherent epistemology.

“Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics”:
It’s hard to do justice to this essay, as it is the main account of contemporary intuitionism, and includes too many important points to be briefly summarized. Still, I shall try to do so.

Audi begins by describing the most popular version of moral intuitionism, that of the work of W.D. Ross. Audi argues that Ross has been mischaracterized as holding that the self-evidentness of moral beliefs is self-evident, a view which does seem dubitable. Ross should be read, however, as asserting that only the truth of a moral belief may be self-evident. The critical point is that this keeps open the possibility that a belief one takes to be true may in fact be false, such that intuitionists are not committed to saying that intuitions are infallible. Intuitionism, then, is first and foremost a theory for how basic moral beliefs can be justified “on the basis of understanding the concepts involved in the proposition” and “non-inferentially (roughly, without dependence on one or more premises as evidence)” (38).

Having defended intuitionism from a common objection based on a misunderstanding of the view, Audi proceeds to establish what a correct understanding of intuitionism does entail. He posits that the four characteristics of an intuition are: that it is non-inferential, that it is a fairly firm belief, that it is formed from adequate understanding of the object of which it is about, and that it is pre-theoretical in not being evidentially dependent on a theory. That an intuition is neither inferential nor theoretically-grounded does not entail that it is irrationally held; one may come to what Audi calls a “conclusion of reflection” without making inferences from premises if “one has obtained a view of the whole and characterized it overall” (43). It’s here that Audi notes that intuitions will more often come from particular cases, hence W.D. Ross’s particularist epistemology, but Audi maintains that intuitions about generalizations are not ruled out by the four characteristics of an intuition.

Audi contends that Ross might have created some skepticism towards intuitionism by claiming the self-evidence of moral beliefs is as self-evident as mathematical truths. A more specific understanding of the epistemic notion of self-evidence will have it that understanding a belief is sufficient for being justified in believing it. This allows for the fact that someone may understand a belief without believing it to be true; the conception of self-evidence on offer only entails that if a person thinks a belief to be true in virtue of understanding the proposition then they are justified in believing it to be true as the belief is self-evident. The idea is that the content of the intuition is sufficient for being justified in believing the proposition such that “what is self-evident can indeed by justifiedly believed on its ‘intrinsic’ merits; but they need not leap out at one immediately” (45). This leads Audi to note the distinction between the immediately self-evident and the mediately self-evident, and while mathematical and logical truths seem immediately self-evident, moral truths are mediately self-evident, in that they need not be obvious, but only believed to be true in virtue of the internal concepts after sufficient reflection.

The truly groundbreaking feature of Audi’s work on intuitionism is in his next move, which is his noting that if intuitions are not immediately self-evident like mathematics, then there is no reason to hold them as being strongly axiomatic like mathematics, which involve axioms that cannot be proven true, such that moral intuitions might be epistemically overdetermined – just because a proposition is self-evidently true does not mean that independent arguments cannot be offered for the truth of that proposition. If this is correct, then critics are wrong to hold that no proof can be offered for intuitions and that intuitionism cannot be systematic. Audi argues here that Kant’s Categorical Imperative, specifically the second formulation of the imperative, which holds that persons ought never to be treated as mere means, would yield obligations to perform many of the prima facie duties that Ross posited as being self-evident as moral considerations, such that independently plausible moral principles can support self-evident intuitions of general duties. Thus, it seems that a principle of respect for human dignity can be seen to unify Ross’s prima facie duties in a way that responds to the common objection to pluralism that it is unsystematic and question-begging as to what features of actions are morally relevant (the last part of the objection was put forth by Dancy in an argument for particularism, and I must admit that I think this sufficiently responds to Dancy’s objection to pluralism).

The above would be a case of justification from below, that is, from something deeper and more foundational, but Audi contends that intuitionism can allow for justification from above, wherein we see what follows from our intuitions when we presuppose them. We might consider what sort of lives we would live without a principle of beneficence and whether or not we would want to live the life in question, such that in some cases we can reject more abstract principles after further reflection. Audi notes that this possibility of justification from above is implied by Ross’s view, and anticipates Rawls’ reflective equilibrium. In so doing, Audi implies that many naturalistic philosophers who are skeptical of intuitionism and so favor a constructivist metaethics are in essence skeptical of a view that is very similar to their own. But the real point Audi is trying to make here is that reflection on the relations of moral concepts is central to moral theorizing, and as ethical intuitionism is a fleshed out epistemological model for “ethical reflectionism”, intuitionism is a better developed and stronger view than many of the alternatives. While many views hold that we can come to moral beliefs through reflection, intuitionism allows for our being justified in believing them.

“Skepticism in Theory and Practice”:
This essay attempts to breach the epistemological gap between moral reasons for an action and the moral goodness of that action, due to a concern that our reasons for an action do not actually rest on the actual goodness of an action. The idea is roughly that in theoretical reason there is an epistemological gap between evidence for a belief, and the truth of that belief, and likewise for practical reasoning there is a gap between reasons and goodness. Audi surveys the various responses to the gap in theoretical reason, and then explores the parallels for practical reasoning.

One way to bridge the gap is just merely to deny the gap; for theoretical reasoning this entails that truth “is simply a matter of, say, warranted assertability or some other category of sufficiently strong evidence” (73). There is no gap between evidence and truth, because truth just is internally available evidence, and likewise for practical reasoning, there is no gap between moral reasons and moral goodness, because moral goodness just is internally available for reasons – which is the idea behind moral subjectivism. Another way to bridge the gap is by again denying the gap, but this time by positing that statements about truth are merely assertions, such that there is no truth to be described. The clear parallel in metaethics is non-cognitivism. The other response that Audi considers is naturalizing justified belief, such that truth is reducible to natural terms in such a way that truth is more easily attainable than previously considered. The parallel is to naturalize goodness by reducing it to natural terms, such that the gap is not as difficult to cross.

In the next section Audi quickly critiques each of the views, but his main criticism of them comes in the argument that his alternative view is superior. Briefly, Audi contends that subjectivism cannot rule out intrinsic values as being the basis of subjective desires, such that at the end of the day, an objectivist view might better explain this fact. Audi’s criticism of non-cognitivism is that it is a position of retreat, which is favored only because of a misunderstanding of what a rationalistic realism would entail – it mistakes direct access to justification as direct access to truth, where the moderate intuitionist view Audi favors does not entail the latter. The critique of natural reductionism is that naturalizing truth and goodness doesn’t really solve the epistemological gap as reductionism entails a reliabilist methodology that cannot succeed without the internalist standards that Audi thinks are necessary for justified belief.

Like with the alternatives, Audi presents the solution to the theoretical gap first, then proceeds by noting the parallel view for the practical gap. For theoretical reason, Audi outlines a moderate rationalism that holds that justification is constituted by basic epistemic principles that connect justification with internally available sources, such as perception, memory and reflection.

Audi argues that just as internally available experiences of perception and memory justify belief for theoretical reason, internally available experiences of pleasure and pain justify belief for practical reasoning. So even if we cannot breach the gap between reasons for action and goodness of action, we can be justified in believing that there are reasons for the action in question in virtue of the internally accessible concepts of pleasure and pain. Nevertheless, Audi maintains that he thinks that a priori epistemic principles in conjunction with such internally accessible concepts do more than provide justification for beliefs, they in fact can bridge the epistemological gaps of theoretical and practical reasoning, in such a way that we can have knowledge of the truths of the external world, and the real goodness of actions. His point is that even if we grant the skeptic the epistemological gap they argue for, and Audi does think this is to grant them too much, we can have justified belief about theoretical and practical reasons, and thus be justified in our moral actions.


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