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Naturalizing, Normativity, and Using What “We” Know in Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

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The provenance of “naturalized epistemology,” so called, is too recent for the hand of Quine not to be still heavily upon it. But like its older relative, “naturalism,” it is an idea rich enough to be coveted, and protean enough to be claimed, by diverse comers with different things in mind. While Quine's version of naturalized epistemology of science inevitably furnishes the backdrop for current discussion of naturalizing moral epistemology, it is important to pause over what “naturalized epistemology” can and should mean in ethics. To what extent is Quine's example of an epistemology of science that helps itself to science the model for understanding knowledge of and in morality? Does it require a view of moral knowledge as reducible to, or in a fundamental way furnished by, science? Or a view of moral theory as sciencelike in some way? I argue that the appropriate analogy is instead a holistic and reflexive epistemology of morality that helps itself to moral judgments and standards seen as answerable to the experience of the kinds of shared lives they make possible and necessary. This approach neither privileges nor rejects wholesale what scientific inquiries might have to say.

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I. Moral Naturalism and Normativity
Copyright
Copyright © The Authors 2000

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References

1 My view is developed in Walker, Margaret UrbanMoral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1998)Google Scholar.

2 Quine, W. V.Epistemology Naturalized,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Richmond Campbell claims that Quine views science as “free of” the effect of value judgments, but acknowledges that Quine in at least one context speaks of empiricism as a theory of evidence that “has both a descriptive and a normative aspect” (“On the Very Idea of a Third Dogma,” in Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 39, and 41 on the “empiricist discipline” that makes for “more or less responsible science“). See Campbell, RichmondIllusions of Paradox (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998)Google Scholar, chap. 5. A useful discussion that rejects the “no normativity” view but recognizes ambiguity in Quine's position about normativity is Foley, RichardQuine and Naturalized Epistemology,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 19, Philosophical Naturalism, ed. French, Peter A.Uehling, Theordore E. Jr. and Wettstein, Howard K. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)Google Scholar. Certainly for Quine it is no business of science to judge how the world ought to be, but this is not the same as judging what science ought to do in constructing and revising its picture of the world. And Quine invokes predictive success, conservatism in accommodating recalcitrant experiences, and simplicity of laws, as considerations in revising our web of belief (see, for example, Quine, W. V.Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 2043)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Quine seems to like to label these appeals “tendencies” and “inclinations,” but this doesn't disguise the fact that they are normative, i.e., parts of the practice of doing good science. See, finally, Quine's, later discussion in Pursuit of Truth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, rev. ed., 1992), chap. 1, 1921Google Scholar, which calls naturalized epistemology a “chapter of engineering: the technology of anticipating sensory stimulation” (19) concerned with heuristics, with” the whole strategy of rational conjecture in the framing of scientific hypotheses” (20). Here Quine considers the constraint of predictive power not normative but constitutive of a “languagegame” of science. I believe it is Quine's earlier views that have set the tone for dominant conceptions of what “naturalizing” is.

4 Quine, W. V.Natural Kinds,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 138CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also “Five Milestones of Empiricism,” in Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 72. Peter Hylton makes a good case that Quine's naturalism can go so far as to reject empiricism if science, improbably, validated nonsensory forms of knowledge like telepathy and clairvoyance (the examples are Quine's own). See Hylton, PeterQuine's Naturalism,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 19, Philosophical Naturalism, ed. French, Peter A.Uehling, Theordore E. Jr. and Wettstein, Howard K. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

4 Quine, W. V.Natural Kinds,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 138CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also “Five Milestones of Empiricism,” in Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 72. Peter Hylton makes a good case that Quine's naturalism can go so far as to reject empiricism if science, improbably, validated nonsensory forms of knowledge like telepathy and clairvoyance (the examples are Quine's own). See Hylton, PeterQuine's Naturalism,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 19, Philosophical Naturalism, ed. French, Peter A.Uehling, Theordore E. Jr. and Wettstein, Howard K. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

5 Lorraine Code presents a detailed diagnosis and critique of the tendentious and unsupported assumptions about science, scientific psychology, and nature that structure Quinean naturalized epistemology. Although she does not discuss naturalized moral epistemology, her critique powerfully exposes the nonscientific ethos of scientism at several levels. See “What is Natural About Epistemology Naturalized?” American Philosophical Quarterly 33 (1996): 1-22. See also, Sorrell, TomScientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science (London: Routledge, 1991)Google Scholar, cited by Code.

6 Quine's own meager views on ethics confirm that science will be judge of ethics, at least: ethics is “methodologically infirm,” because “lacking in empirical checkpoints” for those ends that cannot be shown instrumental (Quine says “causally reduced“) to others. Our moral judgments, as also our propensity to extrapolate from some applications of ethical standards to others, can only answer back to our “unsettled” moral standards themselves, so “coherence” only and “no comparable claim to objectivity” is the lot of ethics. See “On the Nature of Moral Values,” in Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 63-5. Below I return to the idea that moral standards answer back to moral standards, although also to the experience of the world of those who live in social worlds in which these standards have authority.

7 Kornblith, HilaryA Conservative Approach to Social Epistemology,” in Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge, ed. Schmitt, Frederick F. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), 96Google Scholar.

8 I'm using “warranted belief” here in the fairly open sense that Michael DePaul does as “meeting standards that identify what would be epistemically good, excellent, or best.” See DePaul, MichaelBalance and Refinement (New York: Routledge, 1993), 74Google Scholar.

9 I like to think that this model could be adapted to characterize the justification of certain moral sensibilities, attitudes, or endorsings of norms if moral judgments are explained as expressive rather than descriptive, but I do not attempt to show this here. See Gibbard, AlanWise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)Google Scholar and Blackburn, SimonRuling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar for expressivist views.

10 I neither affirm nor deny “a” or “the” fact/value distinction, being uncertain what it means but certain that it means different things to different people. I consider ethical propositions bona fide propositions; but ethical propositions have distinctive and, I believe, multiple roles to play within practices of responsibility structuring social life. These roles include descriptive, expressive, directive, and perhaps other aspects.

11 The empirical-scientific study of morality is, of course, not a “value-free” enterprise. Few today will deny that scientific knowledge is imbued with epistemic norms, if not other kinds. Feminist epistemology has produced the most sustained contemporary philosophical defense (in varied forms) of the claim that scientific knowledge is also inescapably constrained or driven either by nonepistemic (for example, social, moral, and political) norms. For two good samplers, see Feminist Epistemologies, ed. Alcoff, Linda and Potter, Elizabeth (New York: Routledge, 1993)Google Scholar and A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, ed. Antony, Louise and Witt, Charlotte (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993)Google Scholar. Some classics are: Code, LorraineWhat Can She Know? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Harding, SandraThe Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Longino, Helen E.Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Nelson, Lynn HankinsonWho Knows? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Haraway, DonnaSimian, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991)Google Scholar; and Scheman, NaomiEngenderings (New York: Routledge, 1993)Google Scholar. See also Campbell, RichmondIllusions of Paradox (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998)Google Scholar for a recent defense of feminist empiricism.

12 One collection that takes up a variety of issues surrounding the meanings of naturalism and the relevance of empirical studies to moral philosophy is May, LarryFriedman, Marilyn and Clark, Andy eds., Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

13 The phrase” the normative question” is the centerpiece of Christine Korsgaard’ s The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

14 Wittgenstein's fitful but insightful treatment of the grammar of knowledge is one standard locus for this view in On Certainty, ed. Anscombe, G.E.M. and Wright, G. H. von trans. Paul, Denis and Anscombe, G.E.M. (New York: Harper & Row, 1972)Google Scholar. See also Williams, MichaelUnnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Skepticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1991)Google Scholar, which rejects a global view of knowledge.

15 See Darwall, StephenGibbard, AllanRailton, PeterToward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some Trends,” Philosophical Review 101 (1992): 115–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for an anatomy of some contemporary metaethics organized by the issue of” placing” ethics with respect to “empirical science as the paradigm of synthetic knowledge.” (The authors attribute the terminology of placing to Simon Blackburn.) In a footnote, they demur from the view that “objective knowledge” has a definite meaning and deny that it amounts to “knowledge as attained in the empirical sciences,” leaving room for alternative conceptions of objectivity, as well as the corrective impact of an alternative conception of ethical objectivity upon understanding of objectivity in mathematics and science (see p. 126, n. 29). But the authors’ admonitory remark that “Such ‘placement’ would enable us to see how much of morality remains in order” shows their own investment in the tribunal of science. In contrast, see John McDowell's “Two Sorts of Naturalism,” which chastises “neo-Humean naturalism” in favor of a reality that encompasses our “second,” moral natures, in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, ed. Hursthouse, RosalindLawrence, Gavin and Quinn, Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar. But see also essays on Humean epistemology and naturalism in Baier's, AnnetteMoral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)Google Scholar. There are varied alternatives to scientific naturalism.

16 See Walker, Moral Understandings, especially chaps. 1-3 for a critique of epistemic placelessness and lack of reflexivity in moral theorizing, as well as structural and historical analysis of the emergence of the “theoretical-juridical model” of compact theory. See also chaps. 1 and 3 for examination of the feminist critique of gender and other bias in moral theorizing.

17 Korsgaard's initially naturalistic treatment of “reflective endorsement” as the way to answer the normative question unfolds into an argument for the universality and necessity of our valuing our humanity as a condition for acting on reasons, hence bringing back in a bit of the old a priori when it comes to securing morality. This view makes for interesting comparison with the naturalized version of reflective endorsement of actual ways of living. See Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, Lectures 2 and 3.

18 Compare Bernard Williams's somewhat elusive appeals to “confidence” in Williams, BernardEthics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 170–3Google Scholar. See also Altham, J.E.J.Reflection and confidence,” in World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams, ed. Altham, J.E.J. and Harrison, Ross (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Williams, “Replies,” in the same volume. While Williams seems to consider confidence an alternative to knowledge, I see our confidence as a kind of trust in what we know.

19 See Kornblith, “A Conservative Approach to Social Epistemology,” 102ff.

20 See Walker, Moral Understandings, chaps. 2, 3, and 9 on the genealogy and implications of the “pure core” idea.

21 The idea of “transparency” as an ideal of moral views or social orders appears in Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 101-10Google Scholar, and Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity, 17Google Scholar. Although she does not use the phrase, I have profited most from Annette Baier's application of what she calls a “minimal condition of adequacy” that a moral view “not have to condemn the conditions needed for its own thriving,” that it not fail to acknowledge or deny acknowledgment to that which is a condition of its working as it does. See Baier, Moral Prejudices, 96Google Scholar.

22 The thorough intermeshing of moral and epistemic considerations in the reciprocal relationship between understanding who we are, how we live, and how to live, might be a very rich case of what Richmond Campbell calls “factvalue holism.” See Campbell, Illusions of Paradox, Chapter 7.

23 Mills, Charles W.The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 1Google Scholar.

24 Among the facets of the Racial Contract Mills connects with the massive and grim historical record are: a “partitioned social ontology” and juridical elaboration of persons and racial subpersons (14); a racial polity that is obligated to the privilege of necessarily white citizens at the expense of nonwhites (12); a racialized geography that placed most human beings in a irremediable state of nature (13), their lives uncounted (49-50) and their lands unpeopled (49); an “epistemology of ignorance” that precludes understanding of social and political realities (18), produces “moral cognitive distortions” (95) and disqualifies cognition or cultural production of non-Europeans (44).

25 For a primer of short and disturbing selections that exhibit the modern construction of race within Enlightenment terms by Enlightenment thinkers, see Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi ed., Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1997)Google Scholar. Two sobering historical studies that document the enormous energy and evasion needed by Europeans to avoid the simplest path of taking Africans or indigenous people as simply other human beings who lived differently, even exotically differently, from Europeans are Dickason's, Olive study of early North American colonization in the Northeast, The Myth of the Savage: And the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984, 1987)Google Scholar, and Jordan's, Winthrop D.White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968)Google Scholar.

26 The importance for moral philosophy of recognizing, not ignoring or obscuring, the pervasive fact of differentiated social-moral positions in human societies is a main theme of Moral Understandings. I have elsewhere examined several philosophers’ arguments that presuppose, while purporting to prove, that recognizing the “common humanity” of other human beings is in some sense unavoidable. Sadly, it has been and continues to be avoided in numerous forms more often than not by human beings. See Walker, Margaret UrbanIneluctable Feelings and Moral Recognition,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 22, The Philosophy of Emotions, ed. French, Peter A. and Wettstein, Howard K. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

27 Antony, Louise M.Quine as Feminist,” in A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, ed. Antony, Louise M. and Witt, Charlotte (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993), 202Google Scholar.

28 I thank John Greco, Richmond Campbell, and Bruce Hunter for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. An opportunity to present a shorter version of this paper in a symposium on naturalized moral epistemology at the Canadian Philosophical Association in Edmonton, May, 2000, helped me to rethink the final form of this essay. I thank the CPA for this invitation.

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