Autonomy, understanding, and moral disagreement

Philosophical Topics 38 (2):111-129 (2010)
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Should the existence of moral disagreement reduce one’s confidence in one’s moral judgments? Many have claimed that it should not. They claim that we should be morally self-sufficient: that one’s moral judgment and moral confidence ought to be determined entirely one’s own reasoning. Others’ moral beliefs ought not impact one’s own in any way. I claim that moral self-sufficiency is wrong. Moral self-sufficiency ignores the degree to which moral judgment is a fallible cognitive process like all the rest. In this paper, I take up two possible routes to moral self-sufficiency.First, I consider Robert Paul Wolff’s argument that an autonomous being is required to act from his own reasoning. Does Wolff’s argument yield moral self-sufficiency? Wolff’s argument does forbid unthinking obedience. But it does not forbid guidance: the use of moral testimony to glean evidence about nonmoral states of affairs. An agent can use the existence of agreement or disagreement as evidence concerning the reliability of their own cognitive abilities, which is entirely nonmoral information. Corroboration and discorroboration yields nonmoral evidence, and no reasonable theory of autonomy can forbid the use of nonmoral evidence. In fact, by using others to check on my own cognitive functionality, an agent is reasoning better and is thereby more autonomous.Second, I consider Philip Nickel’s requirement that moral judgment proceed from personal understanding. I argue that the requirement of understanding does forbid unthinking obedience, but not discorroboration. When an agent reasons morally, and then reduces confidence in their judgments through discorroboration, they are in full contact with the moral reasons, and with the epistemic reasons. Discorroboration yields more understanding, not less.

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C. Thi Nguyen
University of Utah


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