Moral Dependence: Reliance on Moral Testimony

Dissertation, Ucla (2002)
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Moral dependence is taking another person's assertion or "testimony" that C as a reason to believe C (where C is some moral claim), such that whatever justificatory force is associated with the person's testimony endures or remains as one's reason for believing C. People are justified in relying on one another's testimony in non-moral matters. The dissertation takes up the question whether the same is true for moral beliefs. My method is to divide the topic into three somewhat separate questions. First, there is the epistemological question, what if anything gives me reason to believe that another person's moral claim is likely to be true. Second, there is the psychological question, whether moral dependence is, in fact, part of the rational explanation of why people hold the moral beliefs they do. Third, there is the moral question, whether a person can be a good moral agent while being morally dependent. I answer these questions as follows. First, in response to the epistemological question, I argue that there is a justification for moral dependence based on identifying people who are good moral deliberators. I also argue that there is an unreliable justification for moral dependence based on cooperation and trust. This latter, trust-based justification is unreliable because it is possible to trust and cooperate with those who are morally bad. Second, in response to the psychological question, I argue that moral dependence is part of the rational explanation of moral belief. This is true even though there is some reason to hold that a testimonial justification cannot rationally explain moral belief when there is also a non-testimonial justification available for that same belief. I also argue that moral dependence rationally explains moral development, both because it explains how children come to believe the particular things they do, and also because it can explain how children come to employ new forms of moral justification. Third, in response to the moral question, I argue that autonomy limits moral dependence, but that relying on moral testimony can also bring one to be more aware of what is morally important.

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Philip J. Nickel
Eindhoven University of Technology


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