Wedgwood on Moral Knowledge and Moral Epistemology pt I

Section Three: The Epistemology of Normative Belief.

Part I: The Status of Normative Intuitions

(Part II will cover the next chapter of the section on moral epistemology, entitled, “Disagreement and the A Priori”)

Wedgwood turns to the crucial question of how we might be justified in moral beliefs, using again the thesis that the intentional is normative to argue that we have access to normative facts.

In setting up the problem at hand, Wedgwood assumes an internalist conception of justification, that internal states of the agent justify beliefs, as internalism is a stronger position than externalism, such that if internalism can provide an adequate account of justification so can externalism. In order to provide this interalist account we need an explanation for how it could be “rational to form beliefs by taking one’s sensory experience at face value” (229). It would lead to infinite regress to hold that a belief is justified by antecedent beliefs, so it follows that there must be basic ways in which it is rational to form beliefs, a role that is filled by what Wedgwood calls “primitively rational” ways of forming beliefs. This way of forming beliefs must be such that there is some connection between that way of forming beliefs and the truth, though not necessarily, as it seems unwarranted to argue for an infallible way of forming true beliefs. To accommodate fallibility, Wedgwood notes that, in the case of taking sensory experiences at face value, it seems that “it is essential to sensory experiences that any subject who has such experiences at all has some disposition to have experiences that veridically represent certain aspects of her environment” (231). In other words, we have a disposition of responding to P being the case with the sensory experience of P being the case, and this disposition can be blocked or inhibited a range of factors, including Cartesian demons, such that this way of forming beliefs is not infallible.

Nevertheless, normative beliefs seem quite different than beliefs about sensory experience, as it is not clear how any of our ways of forming normative beliefs have an essential connection to the truth in a way that would suggest primitively rational ways of forming normative beliefs. Wedgwood charges that intuitionists, namely Stratton-Lake and Roger Crisp (my summary of the papers of theirs that he references in a footnote is here), who posit that we can be justified in a normative belief in virtue of its self-evidence have not shown how understanding a proposition has an essential connection to the truth, so a different account is needed.

Wedgwood’s proposal is different from the intuitionist’s, as he posits that from the normativity of the intentional thesis that there are principles of correct and rational use of concepts and correct and rational attitudes towards those concepts as the content of intentional states, it logically follows that to posses a concept is to have a disposition to use the rules of rationality and correctness for that concept in thought, and likewise, to have an attitude towards the content of an intentional state is to have a disposition to use the rules of rationality and correctness for that attitude. As an example Wedgwood explains that “the basic principle of rationality that applies to the attitude of admiration is […] an attitude of admiration is rational if and only if one’s antecedent mental states make it sufficiently likely that the object of one’s admiration really is admirable” (236). Attitudes, and specifically emotions, are often reactions to events, such that this method allows us to articulate when such reactive attitudes are rational, which suggests that these principles of rationality are indicative of a disposition to respond to admirable objects with an attitude of admiration.

That the rational principles of an attitude entail that we have a disposition to respond with an attitude rationally suggests that the manifestations of dispositions are reliable indicators of when we are thinking rationally, and when our mental states are correct. The principles of rationality and correctness for an attitude would specify which antecedent mental states would make it highly likely that it is correct to have that attitude towards that content. Returning to the example of admiration, “this essential disposition is a reliable indicator of which sets of antecedent mental states make it likely that it is correct to admire various objections” (239). Wedgwood attempts to pin “likely” down as the notion that if the antecedent mental states are correct, then the resultant attitude is also correct, such that, “one can treat the manifestations of one’s mental dispositions as prima facie evidence of the corresponding normative truths” (240).

This picture entails that we can form normative beliefs by being sensitive to the “contours” of the mental dispositions, in that we may treat facts about what we are disposed to believe as evidence of the rationality of believing that fact, and facts about what we are disposed to admire as evidence of what is correct to admire, and so on. We may access these dispositions by being in the conditions that trigger that disposition, or by imagining ourselves in those conditions in a way that nonetheless allows us to observe the contours of these mental dispositions, giving methodological backing to thought experiments.

Still it seems possible that these dispositions, though reliable, can be blocked, and what is more, we might have dispositions to use a concept that are not essential to that concept and are for that reason unreliable. Some such unreliable mental dispositions would be moral emotions, which we have seen to be unreliable. To correct for unreliable dispositions we must see how a disposition fits with our background beliefs, ideally, a strongly coherent set of background beliefs, as the greater the degree of coherence between the result of the disposition and the set of background beliefs, the higher degree of justification for that new belief. But of course this is just John Rawls’ reflective equilibrium.

For Wedgwood it seems that on this model we can indeed have moral knowledge, considering that if we come to have a normative belief through the intuitions gained from the simulation of essential dispositions then those intuitions are true, such that the belief based on these coherent intuitions is very reliable, “in the sense that it could not easily happen that one should follow that method in those circumstances but fail to form a belief that is true” (245), thus, constituting moral knowledge.


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  1. Wedgwood on Moral Knowledge and Moral Epistemology pt. II | ausomeawestin

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