Thursday, July 29, 2010

Enoch on The Epistemological Challenge to Metanormative Realism (Part 1)

David Enoch, on the left
I recently put together a series of posts on the constructivist metaethics of Sharon Street. Constructivism, as we learned, maintains that moral truths are made, not found. Indeed, that they are constructed out of the attitudes and dispositions of rational agents. This places constructivism in conflict with a metaethical position known as moral realism.

Moral realism comes in a couple of versions but one version, which has been undergoing something of a resurgence in recent years, is non-natural moral realism. According to this, moral properties are part of the basic metaphysical scaffolding of reality. They do not depend for their existence on the attitudes or dispositions of rational agents. And they are not reducible to the causal or physical entities studied by the sciences.

As Street pointed out, this brand of realism seems to face an epistemological challenge. It seems to owe us some account of how human beings, with their evolved cognitive faculties could possibly come to know of the existence of these mind-independent, non-causal, non-natural properties.

David Enoch's article "The Epistemological Challenge to Metanormative Realism" is an attempt to confront this challenge from a realist perspective. In the course of the article, Enoch does two things. First, he tries to develop the strongest possible formulation of the epistemological challenge. And second, he shows how the realist can deal with the challenge.

Before giving the strongest possible formulation of the challenge, Enoch tries to show how not to think about the challenge. That provides the subject matter for this post.

1. Is it about Epistemic Access?
Some people think that realists need to show how we can gain epistemic access to the non-natural moral domain. Enoch says there are problems with this.

The main one is that the notion of "epistemic access" is poorly defined. It is not clear that it means anything above and beyond other epistemic concepts such as justification, reliability and knowledge. Since these are discussed below, Enoch sees no reason to dwell on "access".

Perhaps, someone can develop an understanding of "access" that is distinct from these other concepts. If so, there may be an additional problem facing moral realism. But this has not been done to date.

2. Is it about Justification?
Maybe the realist owes us an account of how their normative beliefs are justified? That is, how they know that their beliefs are true or accurate. Certainly, an account of justification would be an important part of a completed metaethical theory.

Although this is correct, Enoch thinks that there are three reasons for not conceiving of the epistemological challenge in terms of justification:

  • Normative beliefs are no more difficult to justify than non-normative beliefs. Theories of justification such as foundationalism or coherentism have problems across all domains of cognition, not just in the moral domain.
  • Even within the normative domain, it is not clear that realism faces any justificatory problem that is distinct from the justificatory problems faced by other metaethical positions, including constructivism.
  • Since no theory of epistemic justification is satisfactory on its own terms, other desiderata must play a role in picking the best theory of justification. One of those desiderata would surely be "consistency with intuitive beliefs". Since, realism provides room for strong moral intuitions, it would score well on this desideratum. An alternative theory of justification would have to have other virtues before it could dislodge a commitment to moral realism. 

3. Is it about reliability?
Reliable belief-formation may be thought a precondition for other epistemic qualities such as justification and knowledge. Thus, reliability of moral belief-formation would be an important foundation from which to build a theory of moral realism. But perhaps realism faces noteworthy hurdles when it comes to the reliability of its constituent beliefs?

Enoch thinks there is something to this objection and will return to it later in the article. However, he does make one observation. He thinks that truth opens up the possibility of reliability. So, if the realist conception of moral properties is true, it is at least possible for moral beliefs to be reliable.

4. Is it about Knowledge?
Perhaps the problem is that realism cannot give us an adequate account of moral knowledge? To see whether this is right, Enoch asks us to consider what we would expect from an account of knowledge.

The classical position is that knowledge is justified true belief. However, as Enoch notes, realism could satisfy these three demands: (i) there is no obvious problem of moral belief on the realist account; (ii) there is no non-question begging reason to doubt that realism could be true; and (iii) there is no reason to single out realism when it comes to the problem of justification.

But the thing is, the classical view of knowledge is no longer accepted. As Gettier pointed out back in the 1960s, there are some situations in which all three conditions are satisfied but, due to luck or coincidence, we could not say that knowledge has been obtained. As a result, epistemologists have been searching for a fourth condition to plug the gap between true belief and knowledge. (See this post for more)

Some accounts of this fourth condition rely on the causal and counterfactual properties of beliefs. These accounts may well be incompatible with realism since the moral properties proposed by realists are causally inert.

However, Enoch thinks that the case for these conditions is not watertight and that, again, realism has other strengths that should be considered before picking an epistemology that rules out strongly intuitive moral beliefs.

As a result, Enoch does not think the challenge is best thought of in terms of knowledge.

5. Is it about General Epistemic Scepticism?
It could be that the challenge to realism is just a particular instance of epistemological scepticism. That is, of the scepticism invoked by Descartes in his famous thought experiment on the deceptive demon, or of the scepticism invoked by the brain-in-the-vat thought experiment.

But in that case the challenge is not specifically directed at moral realism. It is directed at all beliefs.

6. So what is it about?
Going through the possibilities in this systematic manner can actually help us to figure out what a good version of the epistemological challenge should look like. It seems like it should have the following features:
  • It should be peculiar to normative beliefs;
  • It should be hard for moral realism as opposed to other metaethical positions;
  • It should not beg the question against realism (i.e. it should not presume that realism is false);
  • It should not rely on highly contested epistemological notions such as "knowledge" and "justification".
In the next part, we will see how Enoch develops a version of the challenge that has these features.


  1. A topic near and dear to my heart. I'm very curious to see how Enoch responds to the objection.