Epistemology of Disagreement and the Moral Non-Conformist


When people disagree about what is moral, we face an epistemological challenge—when the answer to a moral question is not obvious, how do we determine who is right? What if, under the circumstances, we do not have the means to show one party or the other is right? In recent years, a number of epistemologists have turned their attention to the general epistemic problem of how to respond reasonably to disagreement, and we can look to their work for guidance. While there remains significant disagreement about how to respond to disagreement, I will focus on what I take to be the best position in the debate, known as the “Conciliatory” position (or “Conciliation” for short), which holds that parties to a disagreement should become less confident of their initial opinions to some degree, according to the credibility of the parties involved. Conciliation, if interpreted straightforwardly, has some counter-intuitive implications for unpopular opinions, including unpopular moral judgments. If a moral non-conformist becomes somewhat less confident of her view in response to each disagreement with a presumed epistemic peer, she will eventually have such a low degree of confidence in her initial view that she will effectively have switched positions. This result is troubling because almost everyone accepts moral views that were non-conforming views at some point in time, and these views probably would not have become widespread if non-conformists had changed their positions. I propose a modified version of Conciliation which would enable moral non-conformists to engage in cautious “experiments in living.” This modified view, I argue, is reasonable for those who are concerned, not only with correcting their own mistaken moral views, but with promoting moral progress in general.

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Benjamin Sherman
Boston University


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