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Quick Objections to Greene’s Argument

Premises about particular moral scenarios, and about debatable principles, which are not-justified-inferentially cannot be used in ethical arguments where the aim is knowledge. So the conclusion of Greene (2014)’s argument, as loosely reconstructed in Greene contra Ethics (Railgun Remix) and extended in Against Reflective Equilibrium. Given that this conclusion presents a problem for a variety of approaches to ethics, we should consider objections. Start with quick objections—those which do not require much additional knowledge or reasoning. If one of these succeeds, we will be spared from having to consider onerous objections.

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Rini’s Objection

I claim that the loose reconstruction of Greene (2014)’s argument, unlike debunking arguments, does not depend on premises about which factors are morally relevant. Rini (2016) makes an assertion which is incompatible with this claim:

‘To say that a particular psychological process does not track moral truth is to say that the process generates judgments which are not subjunctively sensitive to certain moral properties. We cannot say this without making some moral judgments ourselves’ (Rini, 2016, p. 682, my emphasis).

Here Rini has in mind matters such as the controversy between Singer and Kamm, where they take contrasting positions on whether distance could ever be a morally relevant factor (see Singer vs Kamm on Distance). Of course Rini is right about such cases.

But the loose reconstruction depends only on general claims about general limits of fast processes. It does not depend on any premises about whether any particular factor is morally relevant. (Indeed, the loose reconstruction is consistent with any reasonable premises about which factors are morally relevant.) Rini’s assertion is false.

Rini’s Regress Objection

Against debunking arguments, Rini offers an objection based on the idea that no such argument can succeed without triggering a regress:

‘nearly any attempt to debunk a particular moral judgment on grounds of its psychological cause risks triggering a regress, because a debunking argument must involve moral evaluation of the psychological cause—and this evaluation is itself then subject to psychological investigation and moral evaluation, and so on’ (Rini, 2016, p. 676).

Although Rini’s stated target is debunking arguments, we should ask: Does her line of objection apply to the loose reconstruction of Greene (2014)’s argument?

We can see that it does not because the regress objection works by attempting to raise doubts about the moral judgements requires by the argument it is targeting. But the loose reconstruction of Green’s argument does not depend on specific moral judgements (see Greene contra Ethics (Railgun Remix)).

Königs’ Objection

Königs observes that debunking arguments

‘are dialectically useless if we assume that case-specific intuitions are, as a rule, subordinate to intuitions at a higher level of generality’ (Königs, 2020, p. 2607).

Does the same apply to the loose reconstruction of Greene (2014)’s argument? Yes.

Is this an objection? No, for two reasons. First, the assumption Königs’ requires conflicts with a range of methods in ethics (see Foot and Trolley Cases: Kant Was Wrong, Singer vs Kamm on Distance, and Thomson’s Other Method of Trolley Cases.) Second, although the conclusion of the loose reconstruction concerns judgements about particular moral scenarios, this is only for simplicity. The argument can be straightforwardly generalised to ‘intuitions [that is, not-justified-inferentially judgements] at higher level of generality’.

Is the Argument Unacceptably Sceptical?

If the loose reconstruction of Greene (2014)’s argument succeeds, which ethical premises should we reject? The conclusion of the argument as stated is limited to not-justified-inferentially judgements about particular moral scenarios. However, the argument can be straightforwardly extended to a wider range of not-justified-inferentially judgements.

This suggests the following objection:

The loose reconstruction implies that we cannot use any not-justified-inferentially ethical judgements. But ethics depends on such judgements. So the loose reconstruction implies that ethics is impossible.

Such an objection might be especially appealing to proponents of Audi (2015, p. 57)’s view that ‘[i]ntuition is a resource in all of philosophy, but perhaps nowhere more than in ethics‘ (p. 57).

To see that this objection fails, consider that a counterpart of it targeting physics rather than ethics would, at some point in history, appeared have been no less correct than the actual objection is today. Since the counterpart targeting physics is clearly incorrect, it seems we should reject the objection.

Why does the objection fail? It relies on faith in contemporary philosophers’ methods. But even passing acquaintance with intellectual history reveals that philosophers, like all researchers, can pursue mistakes in great depth over long periods of time. This is not scepticism—it’s history.


automatic : On this course, a process is _automatic_ just if whether or not it occurs is to a significant extent independent of your current task, motivations and intentions. To say that _mindreading is automatic_ is to say that it involves only automatic processes. The term `automatic' has been used in a variety of ways by other authors: see Moors (2014, p. 22) for a one-page overview, Moors & De Houwer (2006) for a detailed theoretical review, or Bargh (1992) for a classic and very readable introduction
cognitively efficient : A process is cognitively efficient to the degree that it does not consume working memory and other scarce cognitive resources.
debunking argument : A debunking argument aims to use facts about why people make a certain judgement together with facts about which factors are morally relevant in order to undermine the case for accepting it. Königs (2020, p. 2607) provides a useful outline of the logic of these arguments (which he calls ‘arguments from moral irrelevance’): ‘when we have different intuitions about similar moral cases, we take this to indicate that there is a moral difference between these cases. This is because we take our intuitions to have responded to a morally relevant difference. But if it turns out that our case-specific intuitions are responding to a factor that lacks moral significance, we no longer have reason to trust our case-specific intuitions suggesting that there really is a moral difference. This is the basic logic behind arguments from moral irrelevance’ (Königs, 2020, p. 2607).
fast : A fast process is one that is to some interesting degree automatic and to some interesting degree cognitively efficient. These processes are also sometimes characterised as able to yield rapid responses.
Since automaticity and cognitive efficiency are matters of degree, it is only strictly correct to identify some processes as faster than others.
The fast-slow distinction has been variously characterised in ways that do not entirely overlap (even individual author have offered differing characterisations at different times; e.g. Kahneman, 2013; Morewedge & Kahneman, 2010; Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Kahneman, 2002): as its advocates stress, it is a rough-and-ready tool, not the basis for a rigorous theory.
loose reconstruction : (of an argument). A reconstruction which prioritises finding a correct argument for a significant conclusion over faithfully representing the argument being reconstructed.
not-justified-inferentially : A claim (or premise, or principle) is not-justified-inferentially if it is not justified in virtue of being inferred from some other claim (or premise, or principle).
Claims made on the basis of perception (_That jumper is red_, say) are typically not-justified-inferentially.
Why not just say ‘noninferentially justified’? Because that can be read as implying that the claim is justified, noninferentially. Whereas ‘not-justified-inferentially’ does not imply this. Any claim which is not justified at all is thereby not-justified-inferentially.


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