Wedgwood on Moral Knowledge and Moral Epistemology pt. II

Section Three: The Epistemology of Normative Belief
Part II: Disagreement and the A Priori

Having articulated a theory of how we can come to have moral knowledge (see here), Wedgwood turns to whether such knowledge is a priori, and if so, how there can be such widespread moral disagreement. Wedgwood takes Kant’s work on the a priori nature of fundamental moral knowledge as his starting point, agreeing that at first glance it does seem that empirical facts are irrelevant to moral principles that would be true for all rational beings, such that if we have moral knowledge at all, some of it must be a priori (see here for an introduction to Kant’s epistemology and his theory of the a priori).

Against the objection that necessary truths might involve contingent facts, so that such knowledge will require empirical knowledge, Wedgwood admits that we should amend this view to include only necessary truths that are modal truths about all possible worlds. Still, it might be argued that, as with the case of water and H2o, there are modal truths that are only known empirically. In this case we have a concept that depends not just on the conceptual role the concept plays in thinking and reasoning, but also contingent facts about the world. We can again take Kant’s view to not include such concepts, but to only be concerned with concepts, “the reference of which depends purely on the concepts’ inner conceptual role, and not on any further contingent facts about the world” (249), which include logical, psychological and mathematical concepts that do seem to be knowable a priori due to their being necessary modal truths. Wedgwood’s elucidation of the concept “ought” would seem to place it in this group, and thus, among a class of a priori knowable concepts. Moreover, it seems likely that normative facts supervene on mental/psychological facts, such that as there is a priori knowledge of these mental facts, and mental facts can be used to describe normative facts, there can be a priori knowledge of normative facts in this fashion.

Still, it seems that even if there is a priori moral knowledge this a priori knowledge would be drastically different than other types of a priori knowledge, as there is little disagreement about a priori knowledge in mathematics or logic because of proofs. There are no such proofs for morality and normativity.

A common account of a priori knowledge in morality drives at the idea that a priori truths are conceptual truths, in the sense that “a priori intuitions stem from our grasp of concepts” (252). The idea is that our grasp of a concept involves an understanding of the nature of the entity that is the semantic value of the concept, and a priori truths are those where we see an implication of the implicit content of the concept. However, Wedgwood doubts this account due to its reliance on faulty notions of conceptual analysis that fail to account for the internalist nature of normative judgments (see his general argument on this point here). Furthermore, the possibility of conceptual analysis seems at odds with the vast amount of disagreement about moral claims.

These factors lead Wedgwood to consider an alternative take on the possibility of a priori moral knowledge, one that allows for disagreement while offering an account for how some of our knowledge is a priori. This approach is Kantian in inspiration, taking from Kant the idea that the a priori is what the cognitive capacities add to experience, such that they are separate from experience. As a result, a priori knowledge is knowledge that is accessible “to anyone who has the relevant capacities” (254). For Wedgwood the relevant capacities include the capacity for the possession of concepts and the capacity for various types of attitude, including beliefs, intentions, and emotions. In particular, we need the capacity to form normative beliefs in a way that is correct or rational as per the requirements of that concept or attitude. If this is true, “one might arrive at a belief in a normative proposition purely by means of exercising these capacities and dispositions” (255). If the exercising of these capacities was rational and reliable, then it would be fair to call this knowledge, and as it has arisen from the capacities in question, it would be correct to call this a priori knowledge.

For all of this, Wedgwood’s view of the a priori still accommodates the reality of moral disagreement, as according to his view, intuitions that arise from the stimulation of essential dispositions are a priori, while intuitions that arise from the stimulation of non-essential dispositions are not a priori. As there is no way to know for certain whether a disposition is essential or non-essential, there is no way to be sure whether one’s intuition is a priori or not, and so it will not be easy to resolve a moral disagreement due to it not being clear who is wrong. Furthermore, dispositions may be blocked by various interfering factors, such as self-interest, in way that prevents the manifestation of essential dispositions. As Wedgwood puts it, “so even though some fundamental normative truths can be known a priori, they are anything but self-intimating” (257). This view has the added benefit of explaining how the existence of moral disagreement does not negate the possibility of a priori knowledge about normative facts.

Wedgwood takes a brief detour on what effect moral disagreement should have on our individual moral beliefs. In some cases we may point to our interlocutor where they have gone wrong, in other cases the error might be much more systematic, where there is little hope of convincing the other of one’s view. In this instance, moral disagreement should lead us to lessen our certainty in that specific moral belief, though it need not cause us to fall into exhaustive moral skepticism. Nevertheless, we are entitled to an egocentric epistemic bias in favor of our own intuition precisely because it is our own intuition. As noted earlier, intuitions are responses to dispositions from facts, such that one’s having a certain intuition gives one a prima facie reason for having belief consistent with that intuition. In fact, given that this intuition is a response to the mapping of the world, it would be quite irrational to disregard the corresponding belief for no other reason than that someone else has a different intuition. We seem to have a non-arbitrary primitive trust in our own intuitions, though we may trust other persons’ intuitions when we have antecedent reasons to trust them – in other words, only our own beliefs may be primitively rational, in the way suggested earlier.

The section on epistemology closes with a major concession – that we may never be certain of a normative belief, but that we may be certain enough, given the relevant demands for justification in the situation, that our belief may count as justified, and when true, knowledge. Thus, Wedgwood pulls back to allow for epistemological contextualism in moral belief. The idea is that there is no set amount of certainty that breaks the threshold for certainty; “there is no context-independent answer to the question of how much justification one needs for a proposition in order for it to be true to say that one’s belief in that proposition is ‘justified’” (264). In some cases strict and demanding standards of justification will apply, where in others the standards for the situation will be more lenient. A rational belief may be one that is justified enough for present purposes, in the sense that one is more justified in believing the proposition than its negation. For Wedgwood this is a modest but necessary conclusion on moral epistemology, as all moral thinking is fallible. Still, this gives us reason enough to act, as “we can have decisive moral reasons to act as though there is no doubt whatsoever about the truth of that proposition” (265).


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