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Philosophical Perspectives, 18, Ethics, 2004

MORAL KNOWLEDGE BY PERCEPTION1

Sarah McGrath
1. Introduction
On the face of it, some of our knowledge is of moral facts (for example, that
this promise should not be broken in these circumstances), and some of it is of
non-moral facts (for example, that the kettle has just boiled). But, some argue,
there is reason to believe that we do not, after all, know any moral facts.
For example, according to J. L. Mackie, if we had moral knowledge (if we were
aware of [objective values]), it would have to be by some special faculty of moral
perception or intuition, utterly differentfrom our ordinaryways of knowingeverything
else(1977,p.38).Butwehavenosuchspecialfaculty.So,wehavenomoralknowledge.
Following Mackie, let us distinguish two questions:
Q1: Assuming that we have moral knowledge, how do we have it?
Q2: Do we in fact have any moral knowledge?
In response to the first question, I argue that if we have moral knowledge, we
have some of it in the same way we have knowledge of our immediate environment: by perception. Many people think that this answer leads to moral skepticism, because they think that we obviously cannot have moral knowledge by
perception. But I will argue that this is incorrect.
The plan for the paper is as follows. In Sections 24, I work up to my
answer to Q1 by considering rivals. In Section 5, I explain what marks my
answer to Q1 as a distinctive view, and defend it. In Section 6, I briefly discuss
how this answer to Q1 affects what we say in response to Q2.

2. Moral knowledge by an inference to the best explanation


2.1 Harmans answer to Q1
The first chapter of Harman (1977) suggests an argument for moral skepticism from which we can extract an answer to Q1.2 In brief, that answer is that if
we have moral knowledge, we get it in the same way we get scientific knowledge:

210 / Sarah McGrath

by inference to the best explanation. It is plausible to interpret Harman as giving


this answer because he seems to conclude that we do not have any moral
knowledge from the fact that we do not get moral knowledge by inference to
the best explanation. Obviously, for this argument to go through, we need the
premise that if we have moral knowledge, we get it by inference to the best
explanation.3
The aim of this section is to clarify Harmans answer on two points: the first
about what knowledge by inference to the best explanation involves, and the
other about what, if anything, a moral theory might explain. But first, let us
briefly review Harmans argument for moral skepticism, to see how an answer to
Q1 can be extracted from it.
According to Harman, the reason that we do not have moral knowledge has
to do with the apparent lack of connection between observational evidence and
moral theory:
Observational evidence plays a part in science it does not appear to play in
ethics, because scientific principles can be justified ultimately by their role in
explaining observationsby their explanatory role. Apparently, moral principles cannot be justified in the same wayConceived as an explanatory theory,
morality, unlike science, seems to be cut off from observation. (1977, p. 9)

The contrast Harman sees between the scientific and moral case can be brought
out by consideration of a pair of Harmans examples (1977, p. 4, p. 8):
PROTON: A physicist sees a certain track in a bubble chamber and makes
the spontaneous judgment There goes a proton. The fact that a proton
passed through the chamber, we may suppose, helps to explain the physicists
judgment. The proton produces the track, which in turn causes a certain
pattern of light to enter the physicists eye, which in turn causes the physicist
to make the judgment.
CAT: Jim rounds a corner and sees a group of young hoodlums pour gasoline
on a cat and ignite it. Jim makes the spontaneous judgment What the children
are doing is wrong.
Harman claims that CAT differs from PROTON in the following way:
[I]t would be reasonable to assume, perhaps, that the children really are pouring
gasoline on a cat and you are seeing them do it. But [there is no] obvious reason
to assume anything about moral facts, such as that it really is wrong to set
the cat on fireIt would seem that all we need assume is that you have certain
more or less well articulated moral principles that are reflected in the judgments
you make, based on your moral sensibility. It seems to be completely irrelevant
to our explanation whether your intuitive immediate judgment is true or false.
(p. 7)

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 211

The contrast, then, is that in PROTON we do need to assume that there really is
a proton in the chamber in order to explain the physicists judgment. Whereas in
CAT, we do not need to assume that what the kids are doing really is wrong in
order to explain Jims judgment. And hence, Harman thinks, we dont know
that what the kids are doing is wrong. This conclusion seems to depend on the
idea that if we knew, it would be by inference to the best explanation.
Someone might object to the suggestion that we come to know moral
hypotheses by inference to the best explanation as follows. If we have moral
knowledge, then many of our moral judgments that amount to knowledge will
be judgments that we form spontaneously, as is Jims judgment in CAT. That,
according to the objection, is inconsistent with the claim that we always know
moral facts by an inferenceto the best explanation, or otherwise.
But this objection is misguided: it is consistent with Harmans answer that a
moral agent forms her moral judgments spontaneously, without reflection. To
see this, it will be useful to consider a few more examples illustrating knowledge
by inference to the best explanation. First, consider:
CHEESE: On coming home from work, Erika notices that the cheese is
missing. She reasons as follows. The cheese is missing. Could it be mice?
Maybe I left the cheese in the shop, or maybeSo, I have mice.
In this case, Erika knows she has mice in the following way. She considers a variety
of possible explanations of the fact that the cheese has been nibbled and concludes
that the most plausible among them is that there are mice. Let us call this a case of
explicit inference to the best explanation reasoning, because Erika actually goes
through the process of considering several possible explanations. Now consider:
DOOR: On arriving at work, Corinne sees that her co-workers door is
open. She spontaneously judges that Stephanie is in her office; she does not
consider a variety of possible explanations and conclude that one among
them is the most plausible.
In this case, the subject doesnt wonder about what the explanation might be: Corinne
does not consider whether a burglar has broken in to Stephanies office, or whether
the wind has blown her door open, etc. It is true, however, that if you asked Corinne
how she knows that Stephanie is in, she could produce the inference to the best
explanation reasoning: that Stephanies being in best explains the fact that the door
is open. Let us call this a case of implicit inference to the best explanation reasoning.
Finally, consider
LAB TECHNICIAN: Barbara the lab technician has been told that if she sees
a track in the bubble chamber, then there is a proton in the chamber. Barbara
sees a track, and thinks: Thats one of those tracks, so there goes a proton.

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In this case, there is no explicit or implicit inference to the best explanation reasoning.
Barbara does not consider a variety of explanations and conclude that one among
them was the most plausible; nor, had she considered rival explanations, could she
pick the one that was best. She does not understand the theory that explains the
track, and so could not produce the reasoning. Rather, Barbaras knowledge that
there is a proton in the chamber relies in part on testimony: she was told that if there
is a track, then there is a proton. Still, Barbaras belief that there is a proton in the
chamber ultimately rests on inference to the best explanation reasoning: her judgment that there is a proton in the chamber counts as knowledge in part because some
scientist(s) somewhere performed inference to the best explanation reasoning.
So the justification for a judgment might be an inference to the best
explanation, even though the judgment is made spontaneously. Jims judgment
might be like Corinnes: it might be a case of implicit inference to the best
explanation reasoning. Or, Jims judgment might be like Barbaras: it might
rest on inference to the best explanation.
Now let us turn to the question of what, if anything, moral hypotheses
might explain. We said that Harmans complaint about moral theory is that
there is an apparent lack of connection between observational evidence and
moral theory: theories are supposed to explain something. In CHEESE, the
thing to be explained was that the cheese was nibbled; in DOOR, it was that the
door was open; and in LAB TECHNICIAN, the explanandum was that there
was a track in the chamber. According to Harman, moral theory, like scientific
theory, ought to explain observation. But as Harman notes, observation is
ambiguous. Observation could refer to an act of observing, as in Barbara
made her observation today at noon, or it could refer to the content of the act
of observing, as in Barbara wrote her observation in her notebook. This is the
Sellarsian ing/ed distinction: the distinction between the act of observing and the
content of what is observed. For clarity, let us use judgment for the act of
judging; observation for an observed fact.
Harman says that scientific, unlike moral principles, are justified ultimately
by their role in explaining judgments: unlike moral principles, scientific
principles can be justified ultimately by their role in explaining observations,
in the second sense of observationwhere the second sense is the -ing sense
(1977, p. 9). So Harmans answer to the question: What if anything does a
moral theory purport to explain? seems to be that if moral theory explains
anything, it explains the same thing scientific theory explains: judgments.
But thats implausible about science: it is not at all obvious that certain
psychological events, namely scientists acts of judgment, ultimately justify
scientific theories. For example, the theory of evolution is presumably justified
by its role in explaining the fossil record and the like; it is certainly not in
practice justified by its role in explaining psychological events occurring in the
minds of evolutionary biologists. Neither is it at all clear that the theory of
evolution could be justifiedat any rate to the high degree to which it is actually
justifiedby its role in explaining such psychological events.

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 213

The claim that scientific knowledge is not ultimately justified by inference to


the best explanation of judgments should not be confused with the extremely
plausible claim that if our beliefs in scientific theories are justified, then the truth
of those theories, at least in part, explains our beliefs. The latter claim does not
require that the plausibility of the theory derive from its success in explaining our
beliefs. But while that claim is surely correct, it is not a view about how we come
to know scientific theories. And the present suggestion is that if we come to
know moral theories, we come to know them in the same way that we come to
know scientific theories. (We will turn to the question of whether this necessary
condition can be pressed into service in a different argument for moral skepticism in section 6 below.)
Returning to the idea that what a theory might explain is our judgments:
that idea is less implausible about moral theory than it is about science. For if a
moral theory explains anything, human judgments seem a good candidate as to
what it explains. As Thomson puts the point:
Nobody, I think, has the odd idea that the truth of a moral sentence might
directly explain the truth of a sentence reporting a purely physical phenomenon,
such as a bells ringing or a whistles blowing. (Thomson, in Harman and
Thomson 1996, p. 76)

Thomson thinks that if there are observations that moral hypotheses directly
explain, the most obvious candidates are observations about our moral
judgments. (A moral hypothesis, such as Alice ought to ring the bell,
might well explain a purely physical phenomenon such as the bells ringing.
But it would do so indirectly, via Alices judgment that she ought to ring the
bell.) We might say something similar about color hypothesesfor instance
that limes are greena comparison that Harman makes himself. The most
plausible candidates for what color hypotheses might directly explain are
facts about their psychological effects on usour color experiences, or our
judgments about color. If the best candidates for moral explananda are facts
about our judgments, then if we have moral knowledge, we have it because
moral hypotheses best explain facts of this sort: Jim judged that the
children were acting wrongly; Most of us think that one ought to keep
ones promises, etc.
Now that we have gotten clear on what, if anything, a moral theory might
explain, we can state the answer to Q1 that we have extracted from Harman
more precisely:
HA1: We know moral hypotheses by inference to the best explanation of
our moral judgments.
The next section argues that HA1taken as an account of moral knowledge in
generalis incorrect.

214 / Sarah McGrath

2.2 Against HA1


Many people who want to resist Harmans skeptical conclusion seem to
think that the most promising line of response is to accept HA1, and argue that
moral facts can be known by inference to the best explanation. According to this
response, moral facts play an explanatory role similar to the role that Harman
says that color facts play:
[I]t may be that the reference to the actual color of the object in an
explanationcan be replaced with talk about the physical characteristics
of the surfacebut that would greatly complicate what is a simple and
easily understood explanation. That is why, even after we come to be able
to give explanations without referring to the actual colors of objects, we will
still assume that objects have actual colors[and] will continue to refer to
the actual colors of objects in the explanations that we will in practice give.
(1977, p. 22)4

Here, Harman is explaining why his argument for moral skepticism does not
generalize to an argument for color skepticism. The passage suggests that if, in
practice, we find that a type of fact simplifies explanations of what we observe,
then facts of that type are explanatory enough to be known by inference to the
best explanation. So many people think that the crucial challenge posed by
Harmans argument is to show that moral facts simplifyor otherwise
improveexplanations.5
But a more straightforward response is to deny HA1. Returning to the
case of color: no doubt color hypotheses do explain color judgments (and
experiences): that this snowball is white explains my spontaneous judgment
(and experience) that it is white. But I do not believe that this snowball is
white because that hypothesis would explain why I judge that snow is white,
or because that hypothesis would explain why it seems to me that this
snowball is white. Incidentally, neither do I believe that this snowball is
white because its being white would explain some other fact, say that it is
reflecting a lot of light across the visible spectrum. So if I know that this
snowball is white, it is not by inference to the best explanationimplicit,
explicit, or in the manner of the lab technician, above. Whether there
is some inference to the best explanation of our color judgments seems
irrelevant to the question of what justifies my belief that the snowball is
white.
One way to bring this out is to consider that where there is an inference to
the best explanation, we have the observations to be explained first, and then go
on to judge that hypothesis is true because it would best explain the observations. Let us return to the example of Jims judgment that what the children are
doing is wrong. If Jim knows that what the children are doing is wrong, then the
story about how he knows cannot be: the hypothesis

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 215

(1) What the kids are doing is wrong.


best explains this observation:
(2) Jim judges that what they are doing is wrong.
Jim can only reason that the truth of (1) is the best explanation of (2) after he
has made that judgment. But this would render his judgment some kind of lucky
guess: when he originally made the judgment, it was not justified by inference to
the best explanation. So Jim does not know (1) by inference to the best explanation of (2), implicit or explicit. And neither, it seems, does Jim know (1) in the
manner of the lab technician: if he knows, he doesnt know because someone
else reasoned that the best explanation of moral judgments is the truth of moral
hypotheses.6
A friend of the view that we know moral hypotheses by inference to the best
explanation might at this point reject HA1 and offer a different suggestion as to
what moral theories might explain. She might say that, pace Thomson, moral
facts explain phenomena other than our judgments. Sturgeon (1988), in addition
to offering examples in which a moral theory (allegedly) explains moral judgments, offers a second kind of example in which a moral fact (allegedly) explains
something else: the fact that Hitler is depraved explains his deeds.
Here we can be brief. In Harmans example of the children and the cat, it is
hard to see what the moral fact that the children are acting wrongly could
possibly explain, other than Jims judgment. So, if Jims knowledge that the
children are acting wrongly is founded on an inference to the best explanation, it
must be an inference to the best explanation of our moral judgments. But
Sturgeons second example is not an example of a moral fact explaining our
judgments: the fact that Hitler is depraved is supposed to explain death and
destruction. Hence, even if Sturgeons second example really is a case of a moral
fact explaining our observations, it cannot by itself support the view that moral
knowledge in general is supported by an inference to the best explanation.

3. Moral knowledge by inference from constituting non-moral facts


3.1 Thomsons answer to Q1
So far I have argued that if we have moral knowledge, it is not solely by
inference to the best explanation. This section explains and then goes on to
criticize an alternative suggested by Thomson (1996). Thomson points out that
Harman seems to assume that we have evidence for a moral hypothesis only if
the truth of that moral hypothesis would explain observations, in the way that
the hypothesis that there is a proton in the bubble chamber would explain
the track in the bubble chamber. But, Thomson thinks, it is not true in general
that we have evidence for a hypothesis only if that hypothesis would explain

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observations. For sometimes, the truth of p is evidence for the truth of q not
because the truth of q would explain the truth of p; rather, it is that the truth of
q would be explained by the truth of p. For example:
DICKENSON: We know that Dickenson will soon feel ill because we have
just seen him wolf down a dozen hamburgers. (Thomson, in Harman and
Thomson 1996, p. 92)
In this example, we have evidence that Dickenson will soon be ill (our hypothesis)
not because that would explain that Dickenson is wolfing down a dozen hamburgers (our observation); rather, we have evidence that he will soon be ill because
that is explained by the fact that he is wolfing down a dozen hamburgers.
Thomsons idea is that our reasons to believe moral hypotheses are like
that: it isnt that the truth of moral hypotheses would explain our observations;
rather it is that the observations would explain the hypotheses. This suggests to
Thomson that the answer to Q1 is that we have knowledge of moral hypotheses
because they are explained by observations (Thomson, in Harman and Thomson
1996, pp. 914). For example:
Suppose that Alices giving Bert a banana was her keeping her word when it
cost her a lot to do so and she could have got away with not doing so. That, it
seems plausible to think, would explain the truth of Alices giving Bert a
banana was just. (p. 93)

In this particular example, our (non-moral) evidence is:


(NM) Alices giving Bert a banana was her keeping her word when it cost
her a lot to do so and she could have got away with not doing so.
(NM) explains (and so is evidence for):
(M) Alices giving Bert a banana was just.
Of course, this sort of explanation, of (M) by (NM), is not a causal explanation
(as was the explanation of the fact that Dickenson will soon be ill); (NM) is
supposed to metaphysically necessitate (strictly imply) (M). We might call it a
constitutive explanation. Still, it does seem to be an explanation of sorts. To return
to Thomsons suggestion: the moral fact that what the children are doing is wrong
is explained bymetaphysically necessitated bythe observation that they are
causing the cat gratuitous pain. So Thomsons answer to Q1 appears to be:
TA1: We have knowledge of moral hypotheses by inferring them from the
non-moral observations that metaphysically necessitate those moral
hypotheses.

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 217

Harman responds as follows (1996, p. 171). The moral skeptic doubts that
we have evidence for any moral facts, and requires, in order to be convinced, an
example in which a moral fact would explain a moral judgment. Clearly, in the
context of a dispute as to whether actions like Alices constitute justice, the
claim that Alices giving Bert a banana in such-and-such circumstances explains
and is evidence for the conclusion that Alices giving Bert a banana was just is
controversial and cannot show that there is evidence in favor of one moral
framework rather than another (pp. 1701). But while Harmans response
would be relevant if the task were to convince the moral skeptic, who is not
prepared to take any moral facts for granted, it is not relevant for our purposes:
we are not trying to prove that Alices giving Bert a banana was just from
premises which even the moral skeptic would accept. At present, we are simply
trying to answer the question: if we have moral knowledge, how do we have it?
In this context, it is not disputed that actions like Alices are just.

3.2 Against TA1


Thomsons proposalor at least a proposal suggested by her remarksis
that the answer to our first question is that we know that Alices giving Bert a
banana was just by inferring it from the non-moral fact that constitutes it, or on
which the moral fact supervenes. But this suggestion, like the previous one,
cannot be the whole story. To see this, consider:
(W) This glass contains water, so:
(O) This glass contains oxygen atoms.
Just as our non-moral evidence (NM) is sufficient but not necessary for (M),
(W) is sufficient but not necessary for (O). However, notice that you cant
come to know (O) simply on the basis of knowing (W). In addition, you need
to know:
(W!O) If this glass contains water, then this glass contains oxygen atoms.
Someone who did not know (W!O) would be quite unjustified in concluding
(O) when she learns (W). Similarly, it appears, with (M): someone who merely
knows that Alices giving Bert a banana was her keeping her word whenis not
justified in concluding that Alices giving Bert a banana was just unless she also
knows:
(NM!M) If Alices giving Bert a banana was her keeping her word
when. , then Alices giving Bert a banana was just.
So, on the present suggestion, the argument by which we can come to know (M)
has two premises, (NM) and (NM!M), both of which must be known. But now

218 / Sarah McGrath

it is clear that the proposal has only pushed the question back: how do we know
truths like (NM!M)? Thus while Thomsons suggestion might be part of the
story about how we have moral knowledge, it cant be the whole story: it needs
to be supplemented with an account of how we know the principles that take us
from non-moral observations to moral facts.

4. Moral knowledge from a priori moral principles and particular nonmoral facts
4.1 Thomsons answer supplemented
We ended the last section with the question: how do we know truths like
(NM!M)? Since we may assume that (NM!M) is necessarily true if true at all,
one natural answer to the question is that we can know (NM!M) a priori. So
Thomsons proposal might be supplemented: we know contingent moral truths
like (M) by inferring them from a priori moral principlessuch as (NM!M)
together with particular moral facts. This supplemented answer is:
TA1+: We know conditionals like (NM!M) above a priori. Moral knowledge about particular cases comes from combining these principles
with facts about the non-moral features of particular cases.
But TA1+ faces the following problem. We have supposed that Thomson
conditionals like (NM!M) are knowable a priori because they are necessary.
But (NM!M) is not necessary. To see this, suppose Bert is going to use the
banana in a crime, or that Alice has poisoned the banana, etc. In these circumstances, giving Bert the banana would not be just. We may grant that there is a
non-moral sentence, (NM), that metaphysically necessitates (M): that there is
a non-moral condition that is metaphysically sufficient for Alices giving Bert a
banana to be just. But (NM) will be very complicated: if Alices giving Bert a
banana was her keeping her word when it cost her a lot to do so, and she could
have got away with not doing so, and the banana was not poisoned, and Bert
was not planning to use the banana to rob a bank, and the banana was Alices to
give, and Bert was not trying to break his addiction to bananas, and it was not
the case that Alice could have used the banana to save a starving personetc.,
etc., etc. It is not clear that we can state (NM!M), let alone know it a priori.
Alternatively, were we to add a ceteris paribus clause to (NM!M)Alices
giving Bert a banana was just if, ceteris paribus, it was her keeping her word
when it cost her a lot to do so, and she could have got away with not doing so
there is no guarantee that the ceteris paribus clause will not smuggle in some
moral conditions. In other words, holding all things equal might covertly be a
matter of holding equal some of the moral facts: for example, holding fixed that
there are not any extenuating circumstances that render giving Bert the banana
unjust.

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 219

In summary: in order to come to know particular moral facts from the nonmoral facts on which they supervene, we need to know some kind of principle
that connects the non-moral facts to the moral facts. This raises the question:
how do we know these principles? If answer is: we know them a priori, then the
connecting principles had better not be Thomson conditionals like (NM!M),
for those are not necessary. But necessary conditionals such as (NM!M) are
so complicated that it is implausible that we could know them at all, never mind
know them a priori. So we have not yet succeeded in supplementing Thomsons
story in a way that yields a plausible answer to Q1.

4.2 A Moorean answer to Q1


Since the difficulty with TA1+ is that it is implausible that we can know
conditionals like (NM!M) a priori, a natural suggestion is that we modify the
view so that the relevant conditionals connecting non-moral features with moral
features are more general, and so more plausibly knowable a priori. Perhaps we
know one general overarching moral principle a priori, and come to have
knowledge about particular cases by applying this general principle on the
basis of non-moral features of particular cases.
As a representative example, consider consequentialism. Suppose some
version of consequentialism is knowable a priori. Let us put it in this schematic
form: x ought to do A iff A would maximize Fness. Then the idea is that we
come to know a particular moral fact, for example, that Alice ought to return
Berts banana, by inferring it from the non-moral fact that Alices returning the
banana would maximize Fness.
The problem with this account is that the best candidates for a priori
principles are those that substitute some moral (or evaluative) term for
Fness, and so applying such abstract principles will require empirical moral
(or evaluative) knowledge of the sort we are trying to explain. Moores version
of consequentialism can serve to illustrate:
That the assertion I am morally bound to perform this action is identical with
the assertion This action will produce the greatest possible amount of good in
the Universeis demonstrably certain. (1903, p. 197)

Assume for the sake of the argument that this statement of consequentialism is
demonstrably certain. Then in order to conclude that Alice ought to return
Berts banana, we need to know that Alices returning the banana will produce
the greatest possible amount of good in the universe. But, obviously, this is a
particular moral fact. But if it is a particular moral fact then we have again just
pushed the question back: how do we know that Alices returning the banana
will produce the greatest possible amount of good in the universe?
So suppose instead that the principle is: An action is morally permissible if
and only if it maximizes human flourishing. But how is human flourishing to

220 / Sarah McGrath

be explained? It is either to be explained in moral terms, or it is to be explained


non-moral terms. If it is to be explained in moral termsfor example, in terms
of possessing all the virtuesthen in order to apply it to a particular case, we
will have to know particular moral facts about the case. So suppose instead
human flourishing is explained in non-moral terms. Then the resulting principle is not plausibly knowable a priori. To see this, suppose human flourishing is explained in terms of what is non-morally good for humans. Knowing
that morality requires us to maximize thatfood, shelter, friends, fulfilling
projects or whateverwould seem to require empirical knowledge. For whether
we ought to maximize what is non-morally good for humans seems to depend on
what is non-morally good for humans: if what is non-morally good for us turns
out to be that we torture other creatures for fun, morality would not require us
to maximize that.
Thus, in summary of sections 24: while it is perhaps true that some of
our moral knowledge is supported by an inference to the best explanation of
(non-moral) observations, and perhaps true that some of our moral knowledge
is supported by deductive inference from non-moral facts plus a priori principles, it is not plausible that all our moral knowledge could ultimately rest on
these two sources, either singly or in combination. In the next section, we will
consider the proposal that we acquire at least some of our moral knowledge by
perception.

5. Moral knowledge by perception


5.1 A first pass at the view
So far we have examined three answers to Q1. The first answer was: by
inference to the best explanation of our (non-moral) observations. The second
answer was: by inference from constituting non-moral facts. The third answer
was: by inference from a priori moral principles and particular non-moral facts.
I have not argued that the views we have discussed so far fail to account for any
of our moral knowledge. It might be that sometimes, we do get moral knowledge in the ways these theories say we do. My point is rather that none of these
views provides the whole story. In particular none provides the best account of
how we know an important and large class of moral facts: the facts about
particular cases.
In this section, let us turn to a fourth answer:
PA1: We have some moral knowledge by perceiving moral facts.
Many people think that on the face of it, this view is not at all plausible. They
think that it is implausible that we can perceive that, for example, torturing a cat
is wrong. But PA1 does not say that there is some dedicated organ of moral
perception, or that moral perception is just like perceiving colors and shapes, or

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 221

that the blind cant perceive moral facts, or that we can perceive moral facts
without a lot of conceptual sophistication. We can perceive that other people are
in pain, that its time to water the plants, or that Fred told a joke. The
proponent of PA1 can say that moral perception is like that.
It might be useful here to compare the problem of whether we can perceive
moral facts with Humes problem of whether we can perceive that one thing
causes another. Famously Hume thought that we cannot: in searching for that
primary impression from which we get our idea of causation, Hume reasons
that we neither find it in the objects nor in the relations that we perceive. We
find the relations of contiguity and succession, but can proceed no farther: we
find only that the one body approaches the other; and that the motion of it
precedes that of the other, but without any sensible interval (p. 77). We do not,
in particular, find an impression of a necessary connection.
Someone might say something similar about Jim. When he rounds the
corner, he sees only that there is gasoline, and that there is a cat, and that the
kids are pouring gasoline on the cat; there is not some additional factthat
what the kids are doing is wrongthat Jim perceives. But surely Anscombe is
right when she complains, in Causality and Determination (1971) that we have
here an example of a philosopher who goes looking for something, concluding
that all we find is such-and-such, having decided in advance that we will not
find the thing sought. Anscombe points out that Hume might as well have
argued that, neither do we perceive bodies, such as billiard ballswe find
only an impression ofa round white patch in our visual fields, etc. (p. 61).
The point is just that so far, we have not been given some reason to think that
while we can perceive that one billiard ball approaches the other, or that some
kids ignite a cat, we cannot perceive that one billiard ball causes the other to
move, or that what the kids are doing is wrong.7
However, TA1 faces a problem, which can be brought out by discussion of a
recent paper defending it.

5.2 A problem
In their defense of a perceptual view of moral epistemology, Watkins and
Jolley develop what they take to be Aristotles idea that we get moral knowledge
by the exercise of an intellectualized perceptual ability (2002, p. 77). Knowing
that torturing cats for fun is wrong is like knowing that a particular wine has
hints of oak and strawberries: it is known by the exercise of perception augmented by intellect (p. 77). If that is what moral perception is like, then seeing
that some particular action is wrong should be no more mysterious than
any other instances of perception that require some degree of sophistication,
training, or skill.
The problem with this view is not that it is false. On the contrary,
the problemat least given our purposes hereis that it is obviously true.
That is, as explained so far, it is not really a rival view about moral knowledge.

222 / Sarah McGrath

Proponents of each of the views we have discussed so far can agree with PA1:
surely everyone who thinks that we have moral knowledge can agree that we
perceive the moral facts, in the way that Watkins and Jolley say that we do.
Harman, for example, in contrasting the scientific and moral cases, emphasizes
that the difference is not a difference with respect to whether we perceive the
facts in question:
if you hold a moral view, whether it is held consciously or unconsciously, you
will be able to perceive rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness, justice or
injustice. There is no difference in this respect between moral propositions and
other theoretical propositions. (p. 5)

In other words, just as everyone should agree that the appropriately trained
physicist can perceive that there is a proton passing by, everyone should agree
that the appropriately trained person perceives that what the children are doing
is wrongassuming that what the children are doing is wrong. So the view that
we come to know the moral facts by perception does not appear to rule out that
we come to know them by inference to the best explanation, or by inference
from constituting non-moral facts, or by inferring moral facts from a priori
moral principles together with particular moral facts. If the perceptual view is to
provide us with a distinctive answer, we need a well-motivated restriction on
what it is to know something by perception according to which the three views
we considered in the previous sections would not count as perceptual views.
Again, for all that has been said so far, a proponent of any of the views we
have discussed is free to agree with the plausible view that the appropriately
trained person can make the spontaneous knowledgeable judgment that, say,
what the children are doing is wrong, just as the wine connoisseur can make the
spontaneous knowledgeable judgment that the wine has hints of oak and berries.
So what more could be meant by saying that we perceive the moral facts? What
is needed is some way of marking the view that we can in some circumstances
perceive the moral facts as a distinct view of moral epistemology.

5.3 A digression on intuitionism, and a solution to the problem


Let us approach the problem of making the perceptual view distinctive by
way of a brief digression on Audis (1996) defense of intuitionism, a view that is
in some respects similar to the perceptual view. Intuitionism is standardly taken
to be the view that we get moral knowledge by a special faculty of moral
intuition. But Audi argues that intuitionism need not posit a faculty of moral
intuition distinct from our general rational capacity as manifested in grasping
logical and (pure) mathematical truths (p. 109).
Now an immediate difficulty for this view is that mathematical axioms and
logical truths are knowable a priori, and obviously we do not know particular
moral factsthat the children acted wrongly, saya priori. Audi explicitly

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 223

recognizes this: he says that even if one were to concede that we can know a
priori generalizations such as: If one sees someone fall off a bicycle and can
easily help with what appears to be a broken arm, one has a prima facie
obligation to do so, we cannot know particular moral facts a priori:
Considerthe unconditional proposition that I actually have this obligation;
this presupposes both my existence and that of the injured person(s) and hence
is plainly neither a priori nor a necessary truth. (p. 109)

But Audis view seems to be that the fact that mathematical axioms and logical
truths are knowable a priori, whereas moral facts about particular cases are not,
is irrelevant to the claim that we know both in virtue of our general rational
capacity. What is distinctive of intuitions, he tells us, is that they have the
following four features: intuitions (a) must be non-inferential, in the sense
that the proposition in question is notat the time it is intuitively heldheld
on the basis of a premise; (b) must bemoderately firm cognition[s]one must
come down on the matter at hand; (c) must be formed in the light of an
adequate understanding of their propositional objects; and (d) must be pretheoretical: roughlyneither evidentially dependent on theories nor themselves
theoretical hypotheses (pp. 109110).
Now it is not clear that Audi, with these conditions, has explained a
distinctive and compelling version of intuitionism. (b) and (c) seem to be
features of beliefs generally, or at any rate are not distinctive features of
moral, mathematical, or logical beliefs. And since so many of our beliefs are
in some sense pre-theoretical, it is hard to see what work (d) is doing. But more
importantly, it is not clear that the basic Kantian thoughtthat one could know
moral facts by exercise of ones general rational capacityis correct: being good
at reasoning and in possession of the requisite concepts seems insufficient for
being in a position to gain moral knowledge, in the way that, arguably, being
good at reasoning and in possession of the requisite concepts is sufficient
for being in a position to gain knowledge of logical or mathematical truths.
Offhand, it seems that someone who is both good at reasoningboth theoretical and practicaland armed with the requisite concepts might be blind to
morality.
However, we can extract a useful idea from Audis discussion. The first
feature Audi lists as distinctive of intuitionsthat they are non-inferentially
justifiedseems a plausible candidate for marking off the perceptual view
from the other views of moral knowledge we have discussed. On the other
views, moral beliefs are justified by distinct non-moral evidence. A distinctive view that we sometimes get moral knowledge by moral perception is
this:
PA1+: We have some moral knowledge by perceiving moral facts, and this
perceptual knowledge does not rest on non-moral evidence.

224 / Sarah McGrath

Compare the case of non-moral perceptual beliefs: in particular, my belief that


there is red apple before me. What is my evidence for the claim that there is a red
apple before me? Arguably, I know this on the basis of perception without any
distinct evidencethere is no fact distinct from the fact that there is a red apple
before me on the basis of which I come to believe that there is a red apple before
me. Alternatively, perhaps I do get my belief that there is a red apple before me
on the basis of distinct evidence: my evidence is that there is a red roundish thing
before me. But then, plausibly, I know that there is a red roundish thing before
me on the basis of perception without distinct evidence.
So the distinctive thing about the revised moral perception view is not that
it holds that we can know moral facts, if at all, by perception; rather, whats
distinctive about the view is that it holds that we can know moral facts without
having (distinct) evidence for them.

5.4 Supportive example


Here is a summary of the case for PA1. Assume we have moral knowledge.
If all our moral knowledge rests on distinct non-moral evidence, then either we
get moral knowledge by an inference to the best explanation of our (non-moral)
observations, or we get moral knowledge by deduction from a priori principles
plus non-moral particular facts, or some combination of the two. But these two
sources cannot account for all our (a posteriori) moral knowledge. So some of
our moral knowledge does not rest on distinct non-moral evidence. And, since
PA1 is (uncontroversially) true, PA1+ follows.
The remainder of this section provides an illustrative example, and constrasts it with the example of Jim and the cat. Supposing that Jim knows that
what the children are doing is wrong, this knowledge rests on his non-moral
evidencethat the children are causing pain for funtogether with his knowledge that it is wrong to cause pain for fun (Harman seems to think of CAT
along these lines). But this example is not entirely typical: other cases arent like
that. Sometimes we dont come to know that a person acted wrongly because we
know that the persons act has non-moral feature F, which we put together with
our previous knowledge that acts with non-moral feature F are wrong. Rather,
we dont know any such principle, and yet we know that the person did the
wrong thing (perhaps we later revise our principles on the basis of the particular
judgment).
Here is an example of the type I have in mind: suppose Alice believes that
homosexuality is wrong, and that she believes this because she has learned that
the scriptures say that homosexuality is wrong, and believes that the scriptures
are authoritative on this matter. But then she gets to know a couple, Bob and
Chuck, who live next door. She gradually comes to believe that it is not wrong
for them to be in this relationship. It isnt that she comes to believe this because
she detects some non-moral features that she believes are sufficient for having a
morally permissible relationshipshe doesnt change her mind because she

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 225

learns that these people are monogamous, or that they prioritize each others
needs. According to the moral principles that Alice believes, these sorts of nonmoral facts would be insufficient for having a relationship that is morally
permissible. Alice simply comes to believe that there is nothing wrong with
this relationship, on the basis of her acquaintance with Bob and Chuck. Further
(we may assume) Alice comes to know that there is nothing wrong with this
relationship. She might then go on to revise the principle that she originally
believed: that homosexuality is wrong.
Someone might object in response to this example that they doubt whether
Alice comes to know that there is nothing wrong with this relationship: the story
gives us insufficient reason to think that Alices belief that Bob and Chuck do
not have an immoral relationship amounts to knowledge. For Alice, on becoming fond of Bob and Chuck, may have gradually come to believe that there was
nothing wrong with their relationship, simply because she liked them. And if
thats true, Alice does not know. The following example might help to bring out
the worry. Suppose Karen (falsely) believes that Julie is far too law-abiding ever
to break the law, and comes to believe that riding a motorcycle without a helmet
is legal in Florida by watching Julie ride off on her motorcycle without a helmet
in Florida. In fact, it is legal to ride without a helmet in Florida, but Julie would
ride without a helmet even if it werent. So Karens belief is not knowledge: she
just got lucky, because she thinks Julie would never break the law. Similarly,
Alices moral belief is not knowledge: she believes Bob and Chuck are not doing
anything wrong because she likes Bob and Chuck.
But the response is just that while it is of course possible to fill out the case
of Alice in such a way that her belief does not count as knowledge, it is possible
to fill out the details of the case so that it is. I am only using the example of Alice
to illustrate the kinds of case I have in mind when I say that sometimes our
knowledge of particular moral facts is by perception, and not on the basis of
distinct, non-moral evidence. Surely in at least some cases like the one that I
have described, we would grant that the subject extends her moral knowledge,
rather than merely happening upon a true belief.

6. Q2: Do we have moral knowledge?


6.1 Harmans answer: no
In section 2, we attributed to Harman an argument for moral skepticism
analogous to Mackies: this argument relied on a claim about how we would get
moral knowledge if we had it. As Ive reconstructed it, that argument that we
have no moral knowledge (cf. the color skepticism argument in section 2.2) is:
(1M) Moral hypotheses cannot be justified by an inference to the best
explanation of our moral judgments.

226 / Sarah McGrath

(2M) If we have moral knowledge, we know moral hypotheses by an


inference to the best explanation of our moral judgments.
Hence:
(3M) We have no moral knowledge. (cf. Harman 1977, p. 13)
I have argued that since HA1 is not the correct answer to Q1, (2M) is false. But
someone might reply that in fact, we can find in that first chapter a much more
powerful argument for moral skepticism. Suppose it is granted that (2M) is false
in the argument above. Still, if we have moral knowledge, moral facts must at
least sometimes explain our moral judgments. So there is a more straightforward
argument for moral skepticism:
(1M*) Moral hypotheses do not explain moral judgments.
(2M*) If we have moral knowledge, then moral hypotheses explain moral
judgments.
Hence:
(3M*) We have no moral knowledge.
This argument does not rely on any claim about how we would get moral
knowledge, if we had it: it merely lays down an extremely plausible necessary
condition for our having moral knowledge.
(2M*) is far more plausible than (2M). But an argument for (1M*) has not
been provided. From Harmans discussion we can only extract the result that if
we know some moral hypothesis, it is not by an inference to the best explanation
of judgments (or, more broadly, non-moral observations). And (1M*) does not
follow: it might be that while moral hypotheses are not explanatory enough to be
known by inference to the best explanation, they nevertheless do explain judgments. To see this, consider:
MR. BODY: Mr. Body is found bludgeoned to death; Tom and Dick both
have motives, lack alibis, etc. In fact, Tom murdered Mr. Body, not Dick.
We cannot know by inference to the best explanation that Tom clubbed
Mr. Bodythat hypothesis is not explanatory enough. Yet Toms clubbing
Mr. Body does explain his death.
The point is just that p might explain q, even though p is not explanatory
enough to be known by inference to the best explanation. So while everyone
should agree that if we have moral knowledge, then moral facts explain our
moral judgments, this does not force us to accept the picture of moral epistemology according to which our moral knowledge is justified by inference to the

Moral Knowledge by Perception / 227

best explanation. Returning to CAT, some take it that Harman has in fact
shown that moral hypotheses do not explain our moral judgments, because he
has shown that we can give a perfectly good explanation of our moral judgments
without mentioning any moral facts. But as Harman has in effect conceded in
his discussion of the color case, the fact that I can explain your judging p
without explicitly mentioning p is insufficient to show that p does not explain
your judgment.

6.2 Concluding Remarks


I have argued that if we have moral knowledge, we have at least some of it
by perception. If Jim knows that the children acted wrongly in setting the cat on
fire, then (we can suppose) he has this piece of knowledge because he perceives
that the children acted wrongly in setting the cat on fire. The crucial feature that
distinguishes the perceptual account from the others we have considered is that
Jim does not know that the children acted wrongly in setting the cat on fire on
the basis of any (distinct) evidence. He simply sees that they did, as he might
simply see that the cat is black.
Suppose thats right: if we have any moral knowledge, we have some of it by
perception. Well, do we have any moral knowledge? In closing, Ill make three
remarks, rather than face Q2 head-on.
First, if PA1+ is the correct answer to Q1, the question of whether we have
moral knowledge is an instance of the problem of explaining which cases of
perceptual belief count as knowledge. Second, since I have argued that we dont
have any (distinct) evidence for some of our moral beliefs, we can straightaway
conclude that we cant entirely answer the moral skeptic on her own terms: some
of our moral opinions cannot be justified on the basis of non-moral evidence.
But it is not clear why this result should threaten our moral knowledge. We cant
badger the skeptic into moralitywhy isnt that an interesting result, rather
than a cause for alarm? Third, this is not an abrogation of philosophical
responsibility: we can take as a starting point that torture is wrong and that
we know it is. We dont have to agree that we must start with psychological facts
and try to argue from them to moral conclusions. The project of finding secure
foundations for knowledge in our mental states (judgments, seemings, sensations, feelings, etc.) is in general highly suspect, and should be equally dubious in
the case of morality.
Now of course there are arguments against the existence of moral facts, and
so moral knowledge. Perhaps we should conclude that there are no moral facts
because the alleged moral facts would have to exert a non-natural magnetic pull
over those who knew them. Perhaps we have no moral knowledge because there
is intractable moral disagreement. But if we set these sorts of arguments to one
side, the question of whether we have moral knowledge is not very hard to
answer. Torturing cats for fun is wrong, andthese days, at leastthis fact is
widely known.

228 / Sarah McGrath


Notes
1. I am grateful to the audiences at Auburn University, Cornell University, Tufts
University, Western Washington University, and at the 2004 Inland Northwest
Philosophy Conference for helpful discussion and criticism. Thanks also to
Selim Berker, Alex Byrne, Caspar Hare, Ned Hall, Elizabeth Harman, and
Brian Weatherson.
2. While Harman appears to argue for moral skepticism in that first chapter, this is
probably not his considered view; later in the book he seems to take it that we do
have moral knowledge.
3. We can also extract from that chapter an argument for moral skepticism
that does not rely on any particular view about how we would get moral
knowledge. I will return to that in section 6 below. What concerns us here is
the idea if we had moral knowledge, we would get it in the same way that we get
scientific knowledge: by inference to the best explanation.
4. The explanations that we will in practice give are explanations of our color
experiences (see p. 22).
5. See for example Sturgeon (1988).
6. An alternative candidate for what moral hypotheses might explain is moral
seemings, for example that it seems to Jim that what the kids are doing
is wrong. A moral seeming is, plausibly, just a disposition or propensity to
make a moral judgment. But this suggestionthat we know moral hypotheses by inference to the best explanation of our dispositions to make moral
judgmentsis no more plausible than the official suggestion that we know
moral hypotheses by inference to the best explanation of moral judgments
themselves.
7. For a helpful discussion of Humes arguments see Watkins (2002).

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