Sunday, May 16, 2010

Moral to Non-moral inferences

It generally seems illegitimate to infer empirical conclusions from moral premises -- imagine, for example, a utilitarian inferring that killing Bob would fail to maximize happiness from their antecedent moral belief that killing is wrong. Or an incompatibilist arguing that determinism must be false because we're morally responsible. There seems something objectionable about the 'direction' of these inferences. (Consequentialists should start with empirical facts and infer moral conclusions; likewise for incompatibilists.)

But I wonder if we can legitimately draw some non-moral conclusions from moral premises. It doesn't seem so bad if the non-moral conclusions are still normative conclusions. I have in mind two examples in particular:

(1) Moral to Rational (all things considered practical reasons). The following seems platitudinous: If you had sufficient reason for acting as you did, then you didn't act wrongly. In other words: moral obligations are rational obligations. But if our views about moral and rational requirements initially diverge, it's an interesting question which way we should revise them: relaxing morality to match our lax view of rationality, or adopting more stringent rational requirements to match our moral convictions. The latter route, though open to question, is at least not obviously illegitimate. (See also the concluding sections of Michael Smith's 'Beyond the Error Theory'.)

(2) Moral to Epistemic. In light of the links between theoretical and practical reason, we might also find our moral beliefs giving rise to certain epistemic commitments. Consider the bridging principle that it's reasonable to act on a reasonable belief. If we think that it could never be reasonable to act so as to gratuitously increase the suffering of innocents, then it seems we should likewise think that it could never be reasonable to believe that the suffering of innocents is intrinsically good. (This is part of what motivates my resistance to Huemer's phenomenal conservatism, for example.)

What do you think? Is something fishy about these sorts of inferences?


  1. A quick thought. The more sympathetic you are to Cornell-realist style positions in metaethics, the more the starting point for this discussion will seem wrong. That is, somebody who thinks that moral judgments really are just a species of naturalistic, empirical judgments probably won't think there's any special problem involved with the initial inferences (the ones in the utilitarian and incompatibilist cases) you mention.

    I'm inclined to treat this as a modus ponens rather than a modus tolens, and to conclude that this is a problem for the versions of metaethical naturalism that have trouble explaining why these inferences are bad.

    Are for the second two cases, the first seems fine to me.

    With the second, I'd want to make a slight qualification. I suspect I'd only think moral-to-epistemic inferences are OK when the epistemological conclusion is one about the epistemic status of a moral belief (or perhaps at least a normative belief), as opposed to a straightforwardly empirical belief. Your example has this feature (you're using a moral premise to draw a conclusion about whether it could be reasonable to hold a moral belief), but I doubt that cases that lack this feature could provide plausible examples of legitimate moral-to-epistemic inferences.

  2. Ah, thanks, that's a plausible qualification.

  3. Hey Richard,

    Quick comment on moral to epistemic inferences. I have a few papers on this. I'm giving one in Edinburgh in a few weeks and have another where I argue that moral to epistemic inferences cause trouble for reasonable belief accounts of warranted assertion. If you end up working on this, please do let me know.

    It's interesting that you cite the epistemic to moral inference as a problem for phenomenal conservatism. I agree that it's a problem. Not only do I think that we can straightforwardly argue against PC by means of these sorts of inferences, there's an argument in Huemer's APQ article that suggests (to me) that these sorts of inferences should work. Essentially, Huemer argues that PC does a good job accommodating an internalist intuition to the effect that if you're considering two things (e.g., beliefs) there can't be a deontic difference where the difference isn't itself or isn't grounded in things that aren't accessible to you. If you take that principle at face value, it suggests that there's a valid inference from ought to believe to ought to do.

    Case 1: Ought to believe I ought to A but oughtn't A.
    Case 2: Ought to believe I ought to B and that's the thing to do.

    There can't be an internally accessible difference between Case 1 & 2 (because in both you believe what you ought to). So, according to the internalist principle, there can't be both Case 1 and Case 2.


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