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Foundationalism for Moral Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Richard B. Brandt*
University of Michigan
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It seems to be generally agreed that a foundationalist view of any area of justified beliefs is the affirmation that there are some (basic) beliefs which are to some degree credible for a person independently of reflection on logical relations to any others of his beliefs, and that any other beliefs of his are justified because of appropriate logical relations to these basic beliefs — thus contrary to the coherentist thesis that beliefs can only be justified by appeal to their relation to other beliefs of a person, independently of whether these other beliefs are themselves independently credible. Thus, for the area of moral beliefs, foundationalism is the view that there is at least a subset of a person's moral beliefs which are either justified independently of logical relations to any other beliefs, or are justified by their logical relations to some other beliefs, either independently credible moral beliefs, or independently credible non-moral ones.

I am here restricting ‘ethical’ beliefs to moral beliefs, as distinct from beliefs that something is a good thing or intrinsically good or good for a person.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1995

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1 Bentham, JeremyAn Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1876) 34Google Scholar

2 Firth, RoderickEthical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1952)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 In Timmons's, Mark helpful “Foundationalism and the Structure of Ethical Justification,Ethics 97 (1987) 596ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar., there seems not to be an account of the meaning of ‘justified’ beyond enjoying a ‘warrant increasing’ property. He properly notes that a foundationalism is not committed to a nonnaturalist conception of ethical terms. He later, however (p. 606), speaks of a “foundationalist conception of being justified [as] an account of how one could be justified in believing certain ethical propositions without the justification's deriving from other ethical beliefs.” An account of this sort is precisely what I am offering.

4 “Ethical Relativity?” Mind 1939

5 Social Psychology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1952) chs. 11-14

6 Wiggins, DavidNeeds Values, Truth (Oxford: Blackwell 1992) 162Google Scholar

7 Ibid., 158, 159

8 “Personal Conflicts and Culture Change,” Social Forces 20, 160-71. See also Padilla, A.M.Acculturation: Theories, Models and some New Findings (Boulder, CO: Westview Press 1980)Google Scholar.

9 “Navaho Veterans: a Study of Changing Values,” Papers of the Peabody Museum 41 (1951) no. 1

10 Sturgeon, NicholasMoral Explanations,” in Sayre-McCord, G.Essays in Moral Realism (Cornell University Press, 1988) 245Google Scholar

11 Lycan, W.G.Moral Facts and Moral Knowledge,Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, supplement, 86ff.Google Scholar

12 Timmons, op. cit., 607ff., suggests that critics of foundationalism have denied that “relevant background theories sufficient for constraining a choice among competing moral systems, can be developed independently of moral considerations.” This view he attributes, among others, to Daniels, Norman in his “Moral Theory and the Plasticity of Persons,Monist 62 (1979) 265-87, at 273CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The points to be presented below are precisely intended as grounds for rejecting the Daniels view.

13 See his Development of Prosocial Motivation: Empathy and Guilt,” in Eisenberg, N. ed., The Development of Prosocial Behavior (New York: Academic Press 1982) 281313Google Scholar; “Is Altruism Part of Human Nature,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40 (1981) 121-37; “Empathy and Justice in Society,” Social Science Research 3 (1989) 283-311

14 See Brandt, R.B.The Psychology of Benevolence and its Implications for Philosophy,Journal of Philosophy 78 (1976) 429-53CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Berkeley, GeorgePassive Obedience (1712)Google Scholar, reprinted in Calkins, M.W. ed., Berkeley (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1929) 436Google Scholar

16 J.S. Mill wrote, about a page from the end of chapter 5 of Utilitarianism: “Particular cases may occur in which some other social duty is so important as to overrule any one of the general maxims of justice. Thus, to serve a life it may be not only allowable, but a duty, to steal or take by force the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap and compel to officiate the only qualified medical practitioner.“

17 This way of putting matters is due to a personal communication from Sanford Levy.

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