Review of Mark Timmons’ Morality Without Foundations pt III (of III): on Timmons’ Contextualist Epistemology

Timmons then turns to matters of moral epistemology, arguing for a contextualist epistemology that borrows from foundationalist and coherentist views to develop an account of how regular persons can have justified moral beliefs – a criterion that he says the other epistemological views don’t take seriously enough. Timmons notes, before getting things going, that he is not interested in an epistemology of moral theory acceptance, because he thinks that regular persons can have justified moral beliefs without working out a full moral theory, and that moral theories are more the domain of philosophers than average folk.

After surveying some recent contextualist themes in epistemology, Timmons posits that the sort of contextualism he is pursuing is structural justification, such that contextualism is a competitor to foundationalism and contextualism. In response to the regress of justification problem, the contextualist claims that the regress terminates in beliefs that in a given context, are not in need of justification. This special sort of belief is what Timmons will call a contextually basic belief. So the contextualist denies that foundational or coherent beliefs are necessary for structural justification. “What the contextualist claims is that the contextualist picture represents a realistic and largely correct picture of the actual structure of an ordinary individual’s justified beliefs” (188).

Timmons then takes a moment to detail how justificatory needs may vary by context, noting the sort of rationality needed for the possibility of being epistemically responsible in what one believes. Pulling from Richard Foley, Timmons posits that a belief is rational in regards to the goal, the perspective, and the set of resources, which set the parameters for the rationality of a belief. These parameters vary by situation, and thus fit into the contextualist theme of Timmons’ moral epistemology. The specific goals, perspectives and resources Timmons thinks are central to moral justification are having true and not false beliefs (the goal), being seen from the perspective of an epistemically responsible agent (similar to the reasonable person in American law), and that the resources are those abilities the average responsible agent has (certain limits of memory and cognition). This responsible agent will be one we can judge ourselves against, such that it is an idealization, but one that is realistic, such that we can hold ourselves to the standards of the idealized agent.

The epistemically responsible agent is one that gathers evidence, considers counterpossibilities, and attempts to resolve conflicting beliefs. Timmons seems to be most concerned with responsibility for checking counterpossibilities, going into the details that lead him to reject a radically internalist perspective – demanding that the agent check all counterpossibilities that enter his mind (perhaps including the counterpossibility that all is illusion, which seems absurd to have to check) — and a radically externalist perspective – which would require him to check all possibilities that are objectively likely (which would seem to require him to check against counterpossibilities that he had no reason to expect). The in-between is “a modest internalist proposal – that requires (roughly) that we check all and only those counterpossibilities whose seriousness is implied by our current belief set” (197). Still, we do not want to overly idealize the agent, so we must limit the counterpossibilities that are seriously implied by a current belief set to be feasible in light of limits of memory and inference, where such limits are determined empirically. Nevertheless, we must note that the epistemically responsible agent should be expected to know what is commonly known in the community, as there is a social dimension to information, and which the responsible agent must be held to.

Timmons then considers the central components of structural contextualism, which boils down to the idea that one may be epistemically responsible in holding certain beliefs without having justifying evidence for those beliefs, that these beliefs may be the basis for being justified in having other beliefs, and that which beliefs are in need of justification depends on context. These three components inform his take on moral justification, the central idea of which is that it is a descriptive truth that we do not have justifying reasons for all of our moral beliefs, with the normative conclusion that we can be contextually justified in our moral beliefs.

Filling in the details further, Timmons channels W.D. Ross, taking from him the ideas that there are beliefs that are not in need of proof, that there are a plurality of mid-level moral generalizations (i.e. it is wrong to steal) that constitute prima facie duties, and that when these duties conflict there is no algorithm to resolve the conflict. In other words, with Timmons’ view we get (early) Rossian moral epistemology, with the main difference being that beliefs that are not in need of proof, for Ross, are non-inferentially known self-evident a priori truths, but for Timmons are justified beliefs in virtue of being constitutive of ones moral outlook.

Timmons is working from the idea that there often seem to be bedrock moral generalizations that we use to make particular moral judgments, that these generalizations are often inculcated from socialization and moral education thus comprising ones moral outlook, with the result that when questioned why we believe these generalizations we have no reason other than that they are obvious to us. For Timmons, “we can say that a set of these mid-level generalizations is (partly) constitutive of a particular moral outlook” (218). Recalling his details of a moral outlook from the previous chapter, Timmons posits that part of taking the engaged moral perspective is to connect morally relevant features of actions, as handed down by moral education, with terms of moral evaluations, such that “these general moral beliefs help structure and organize our moral experience and thought – we think in terms of them” (218). As such, it is precisely because we think in terms of such generalizations that they are outside the realm of criticism and doubt. Nevertheless, we can and do take a morally detached perspective, where we step outside of our own moral outlook and thus the manner of moral thinking to which we are accustomed, such that the moral generalizations that structure moral thought no longer guide our inquiry, and we indeed can be skeptical of our otherwise contextually basic moral beliefs, because we are considering them in another context.

A final aspect of Ross’s view that Timmons adopts is that there is no decision procedure for mediating competing prima facie duties, but that, against the charge that such judgments are arbitrary and thus unjustified in not being rule-governed, these beliefs are justified, as making judgments from an informed perspective is sufficient to justify those beliefs (see here for another entry on this argument against Ross). The main argument for this view is against the argument that would discount such judgments as unjustified. The argument is essentially that scientific inquiry and progress is not rule governed, but is surely rational inquiry, such that it is possible to have justified beliefs that are in an area of inquiry that is not strictly rule-governed.

Timmons surveys other epistemological work in moral theory, and concludes that other views do not allow that many persons are justified in their moral beliefs, or if they do, then the view closely resembles his contextualism. His summaries of the major views are quite fair, so epistemologists who favor foundationalism and coherentism would do best to show the flaw in his view, and why the resemblance is illusionary. I think such a response is possible.

The problem that appears for Timmons’ epistemological view is similar to his metaphysical view (see here for my critique): his view depends entirely on the possibility of distinguishing a morally engaged perspective from a morally detached perspective, and it is dubitable whether we can establish these two perspectives in a way that they are stable enough without crashing into each other. If our moral outlook establishes our context in such a way that in thinking morally we think in moral terms established through our moral outlook, it should seem impossible to think and reason morally outside of that moral outlook. In stepping outside of our own moral outlook we must and do seem to be able to consider other perspectives on the good life, such that we still have some moral knowledge of the meanings of moral terms, but can apply them to other ways of living. But on Timmons’ view moral terms are established in their meaning in ones moral outlook, so one cannot step outside of one’s moral outlook without giving up all prior moral knowledge. To admit that there could be such knowledge that could translate between perspectives should lead us to wonder what is gained by positing that there are engaged and detached moral outlooks at all, as the engaged and detached perspectives begin to blur.

My general conclusion on Timmons’ Morality Without Foundations is that it is a fantastic read, filled with fascinating ideas and unique perspectives in metaethics, but ultimately doesn’t offer a very plausible positive theory. For his theories on metaphysics, moral semantics, and moral epistemology to succeed, the notions of morally engaged and detached perspectives need to work, which would require that certain moral practices and activities from those positions be possible, and as those activities are not possible (or so I have argued), distinguishing morally engaged and morally detached perspectives is unworkable, and with it, Timmons’ overall theory.

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