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Moral Knowledge, Moral Sensitivity and Moral Education

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The aims of this paper are twofold: firstly, to demonstrate the possibility of knowledge in the moral domain, and secondly to specify the ‘objects’ of such knowledge. Moral non-cognitivism is seriously flawed in its account of truth in relation to moral judgments, in its rejection of the possibility of moral facts as well as in its reliance on a number of questionable distinctions such as that between fact and value and descriptive and evaluative discourse. It operates with an excessively narrow, and all too frequently absolutist conception of reality, the result of which is a misplaced skepticism.

The nature of moral facts is explicated by reference to moral properties and moral requirements. Such facts, though non-inferential, may be said to be directly observable by those in possession of a distinct sensibility and conceptual vocabulary upon which the recognition and significance of morally salient features depends.

Underpinning the argument for moral knowledge is a form of non-naturalistic moral realism whereby moral knowledge may be said to be arrived at in ways very different from, but equally valid as those yielding scientific knowledge. The utility, as well as the limitations, of the analogy between secondary qualities and the mind-dependency of moral properties will demonstrate how moral properties may be said to possess a dispositional character, in those with the requisite sensibility, towards feeling and action even if such a disposition is not accountable in purely mechanistic terms. The skills associated with the discovery of moral facts are identifiable as requiring a sensitivity to context without recourse to any mysterious faculty associated with intuitionism. Any such discovery has both a cognitive and affective dimension, the latter having all too frequently been ignored in discussions of moral knowledge. The respects in which this is crucial to identifying features in the world possessing moral salience merits particular scrutiny in view of the fact that morality’s concern is not only with belief, but also with action, feeling, qualities of character and lives that may be lived with integrity. Moral knowledge cannot therefore be reduced to something merely propositional. Internal moral realism provides a clear link between morality and reasons for action, with the so-called belief-desire theory of moral motivation relying on nothing more than Humean dogma.

In so far as the focus of our moral vision is on specific contexts, with their own unique features, moral epistemology is concerned with the truth of particular judgments as opposed to the search for rules or principles. If the latter exist, they are shown to be both pro tanto and uncodifiable. The significance of this for moral education is noted.

Moral claims may be said to possess objective status in virtue of the fact that moral properties are objective features of the world, in spite of attempts by non-cognitivists such as Mackie to portray them as inescapably queer. The defence of moral objectivity will rely on the denial of Williams’ unwarranted assumption that all knowledge requires explanation without reference to parochial concepts such as the ‘thick’ moral concepts on which moral discourse relies. Their dependence on the existence of social realms of meaning does nothing to damage the possibility of objective moral judgment. The so-called threat to moral objectivity posed by the existence of widely differing cultural viewpoints and moral disagreement is shown to be exaggerated. The truth in relativism is addressed, and the fact that there may well be a measure of relativity in moral judgment fails to undermine the possibility of rational adjudication between competing viewpoints; it merely serves to demonstrate the unavoidability of pluralism within the moral sphere, whereby moral agents may well justifiably differ in their ascription of different emphases to values such as justice on the one hand and compassion on the other, as witnessed in the recent dispute concerning the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi

Roger Marples Roehampton University, London

This talk is part of the Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars series.

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