Cookies Policy

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

I accept this policy

Find out more here

Open Access Explaining Moral Knowledge

No metrics data to plot.
The attempt to load metrics for this article has failed.
The attempt to plot a graph for these metrics has failed.
MyBook is a cheap paperback edition of the original book and will be sold at uniform, low price.

Explaining Moral Knowledge

Full text article:

  • XML
  • PDF
  • HTML
Add to Favorites

image of Journal of Moral Philosophy

In this paper I assess the viability of a particularist explanation of moral knowledge. First, I consider two arguments by Sean McKeever and Michael Ridge that purport to show that a generalist, principle-based explanation of practical wisdom—understood as the ability to acquire moral knowledge in a wide range of situations—is superior to a particularist, non-principle-based account. I contend that both arguments are unsuccessful. Then, I propose a particularist-friendly explanation of knowledge of particular moral facts. I argue that when we are careful to keep separate the various explanatory tasks at hand we can see that a particularist-friendly explanation of the fact that (e.g.,) Jane knows that A is morally right might not be so difficult to come by. Moreover, I suggest that a particularist approach to explaining knowledge of particular moral facts may go some way towards discharging the challenge of moral scepticism.

1. Bales R.E. , ( 1971) ‘ "Act-Utilitarianism: Account of Right-making Characteristics or Decision-Making Procedure?"’, American Philosophical Quarterly Vol 8: 257265.
2. Dancy J. , ( 2004) Ethics Without Principles ( Oxford: Clarendon Press).
3. ——( 1993) Moral Reasons( Blackwell Publishers).
4. Dreyfus H.L. ,and Dreyfus S.E. ( 1990) ‘ "What is Morality? A Phenomenological Account of the Development of Ethical Expertise"’, in Rasmussen, D. (1990) Universalism vs. Communitarianism(The MIT Press) 237–264.
5. Dworkin G. ( 1995) ‘ "Unprincipled Ethics"’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy , Vol 20: 224239.
6. Hempel C.G. ,, and Oppenheim P. , ( 1948) ‘ "Studies in the Logic of Explanation"’, Philosophy of Science , Vol 15( 2): 135175.
7. Huemer ( 2007) ‘ "Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism"’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , Vol 74( 1): 3055.
8. Kagan ( 2001) ‘ "Thinking About Cases"’, Social Philosophy and Policy , Vol 18: 4463.
9. Ladd J. , ( 1952) ‘ "Ethics and Explanation"’, The Journal of Philosophy , Vol 49( 15): 499504.
10. Leibowitz U.D. ( 2012) ‘ "Particularism in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics"’, The Journal of Moral Philosophy .
11. ——( 2011) ‘ "Scientific Explanation and Moral Explanation"’, Noûs Vol 45( 3): 472503.
12. ——( 2009b) ‘ "Moral Advice and Moral Theory"’, Philosophical Studies , Vol 146( 3): 349359.
13. ——( 2009a) ‘ "A Defense of a Particularist Research Program"’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice , Volume Vol 12, Issue 2.
14. McKeever S. ,, and Ridge M. , ( 2006) Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative Ideal ( Oxford: Clarendon Press).
15. Schroeder ( 2009) ‘ "A Matter of Principle"’, Noûs Vol 43( 3): 568580.
16. Scriven M. ,( 1959) ‘ "Truisms as the ground for historical explanations"’, in Gardiner P. , (ed.) (1959) Theories of History (The Free Press) pp. 443475.
17. Zangwill N. ,, ( 2006) ‘ "Moral Epistemology and the Because Constraint"’, in Dreier J. , (ed.)(2006) Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory (Blackwell Publishing).
18. fn1 * Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Virtuous Agency Workshop at Uppsala University, the Centre for Ethics and Metaethics at Leeds, the Law and Philosophy Workshop at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the 4 thRoME Congress at Boulder, and the Moral Philosophy Seminar at Oxford. I received many helpful questions, comments and suggestions from members of the audience on each of these occasions. I am particularly grateful to Daniel Elstein, David Enoch, Carrie Jenkins, Noa Leibowitz, Yair Levy, Sean McKeever, Sydney Penner, Michael Ridge, Pekka Väyrynen and Jeffrey Wisdom. Special thanks go to Tehila Sagy.
19. fn2 1 For this formulation of the particularism-generalism debate, see Leibowitz (2009a). The list of options here mentioned is illustrative rather than exhaustive. The specific details of what an adequate particularist explanation consists of may vary from one particularist theory to another. See Leibowitz (2011).
20. fn3 2 See M&R (2006) Chapters 6 & 7.
21. fn4 3 See Dancy (2004)Chapters 2 & 3.
22. fn5 4 One question that M&R do not address is how a person of practical wisdom knows that she is in a situation that calls for moral assessment in the first place. That is, how does she know when to run through her mental checklist of morally relevant features? It seems that even proponents of the checklist model must appeal to some skill or ability in their account of moral knowledge, otherwise they may have to resort to “checklists all the way down”.
23. fn6 5 If disablers and enablers can themselves be disabled or enabled, she also runs through a complete list of meta-disablers/enablers.
24. fn7 6 In his latest book (2004:142–3) Dancy expresses a similar position. He claims that moral knowledge is “more like knowledge-how than like knowledge-that” and that moral knowledge is obtained by the application of a skill of discernment.
25. fn8 7 There may be reasons to think that particular moral judgments are not acquired in this way. See, for example, Dworkin (1995)and Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1990) as well as various sources cited in M&R (2006) ch. 9 section 4.
26. fn9 8 In personal correspondence McKeever pointed out to me that he is happy to allow that moral knowledge is interpersonally transferable (e.g., by testimony) and so that there are other methods for the acquisition of moral knowledge other than the checklist model. The qualification “direct” or “basic” moral knowledge in the text is added in order to emphasize that the focus here is on moral knowledge which does not depend on there being other agents who possess moral knowledge. In any case, particularists are unlikely to accept the claim that unless one is practically wise one can obtain moral knowledge only indirectly.
27. fn10 9 The implausibility of the checklist model becomes apparent if we consider how we know that an act is dangerous (for example). It seems implausible to insist that in order to know that an act is dangerous one must know in advance all possible danger-relevant features (including enablers, disablers, intensifiers and attenuators) as well as the exceptionless principle from which one can deduce that an act is dangerous.
28. fn11 10 Schroeder (2009) raises similar concerns about M&R’s expectations about the scope of practical wisdom.
29. fn12 11 Thanks to Pekka Väyrynen for this proposal.
30. fn13 12 I owe this suggestion to Pekka Väyrynen and Daniel Elstein.
31. fn14 13 This model makes knowledge of principles prior to, and more fundamental than, knowledge of the normative status of particular actions. It is difficult to see how this model could accommodate the practice of revising principles in response to judgments about cases—a practice that M&R want to preserve (see, e.g., p. 158. But see Kagan (2001) for the view that judgments about cases do not generate data for moral theorizing.) Moreover, I suspect that if M&R’s argument succeeds it should be equally forceful against any form of pluralism. So its conclusion seems to be stronger than M&R recognize.
32. fn15 14 “Tigers have tails” is a paradigmatic example of a generic statement. “Tigers have tails” is true even though some tigers have no tails. The term “normic-statement” is introduced by Michael Scriven (1959)for statements that are not analytic and not refutable by a few counter instances. “The normic statement,” he writes, “says that everythingfalls into a certain category exceptthose to which certain special conditionsapply. And, although the normic statement itself does not explicitly list what count as exceptional conditions, it employs a vocabulary which reminds us of our knowledge of this, our trained judgment of exceptions” (1959:466).
33. fn16 15 Indeed, it is not so difficult to come up with scenarios in which it is anything but obvious that keeping a promise is right making. In contrast, it is much harder, and arguably impossible, to find examples that show that keeping a promise is not normallyright making.
34. fn17 16 See, e.g., Huemer (2007).
35. fn18 17 M&R take Moore’s Open Question Argument to show that moral predicates cannot be analyzed into purely descriptive language and so that moral principles are not analytic. See M&R’s Ch. 5 (and esp. section 5.2).
36. fn19 18 See, for example, Zangwill (2006).
37. fn20 19 Dancy explicitly states that he intends particularism to be compatible with (ST). See Dancy (2004:85–93). For a discussion of the compatibility of (ST) with particularism, see Leibowitz (2009a).
38. fn21 20 I am assuming for the sake of discussion that nihilism is false. This is common ground in the context of the particularism-generalism debate.
39. fn22 21 Thanks to Carrie Jenkins for pressing me on this issue.
40. fn23 22 This list isn’t exhaustive – there may well be other kindsof explanations one could offer.
41. fn24 23 See, for example, Zangwill (2006).
42. fn25 24 I develop this version of a particularist-friendly explanation of the rightness of actions in Leibowitz (2012). I will say more about it below.
43. fn26 25 Thanks to Sydney Penner for pressing me on this point.
44. fn27 26 For a more detailed discussion of this issue as well as an argument for why a Hempel-style move to “explanation sketches” won’t do, see Leibowitz (2011).
45. fn28 27 See Leibowitz (2011).
46. fn29 28 The precise details of the particularist explanation of the rightness of actions may vary from one particularist theory to another. The explanation, or “explanation-sketch”, I suggest in the main text is based on the particularist theory I develop in Leibowitz (2012).
47. fn30 29 One explicit expression of this expectation can be found in Ladd (1952:499), where Ladd insists that proper explanations “should provide us with statements that have ‘potential predictive force’”.
48. fn31 30 At least not directly. They may be helpful in other ways. See Leibowitz (2012).
49. fn32 31 For a discussion of the distinction between explaining the rightness of actions and providing decision procedures see Leibowitz (2009b).
50. fn33 32 See, e.g., Bales (1971).

Article metrics loading...


Affiliations: 1: University of Nottingham,


Can't access your account?
  • Tools

  • Add to Favorites
  • Printable version
  • Email this page
  • Subscribe to ToC alert
  • Subscribe to Citation alert
  • Get permissions
  • Recommend to your library

    You must fill out fields marked with: *

    Librarian details
    Your details
    Why are you recommending this title?
    Select reason:
    Journal of Moral Philosophy — Recommend this title to your library

    Thank you

    Your recommendation has been sent to your librarian.

  • Export citations
  • Key

  • Full access
  • Open Access
  • Partial/No accessInformation