The Epistemological Problem

Below I have posted a card I saw read in a debate as an answer to deontology. I don’t want to taint discussion so I won’t say what I thought about it yet, but I am interested to see what other people might think in terms of is this a good card, is the argument it makes useful/relevant to morality issues as they are debated in policy (death vs some other value) , and what you would rate it sort of 1-10, 10 being Khalilzad 95.


Take first the epistemological problem. Every view of morality must ultimately give some account of how it is that we come to know what is right. An otherwise impressive moral metaphysics is pointless if epistemologically implausible. 103 With general norms, it is plausible that we may come to learn them gradually, refining our understanding through practice. Naturalistically learning through practice, however, is foreclosed to one who sees deontology as both pervasive and particularist. Almost every situation is morally different from the rest, even if only slightly so. If deontology is exhaustive of morality, there must be a separate injunction for each situation. The epistemological [*922] problem is that learning an essentially infinite number of separate rules to govern our conduct is implausible. It initially might be thought that the epistemological problem could be overcome by allowing generality within the specific norms, thus making it possible for the student of morality to learn these general principles and then derive the specific deontological prohibitions from them. The trouble with this response is that the important theoretic work is performed by the underlying principles by which the specific deontological maxims can be learned. This is problematic because theoretic entities are abstract. As such, Ockham’s Razor 104 and the principles of pragmatism 105 dictate that we do better to recognize conceptually the general principles. There is no logical inconsistency in positing a deontological norm for every morally distinct situation. But if pervasive, deontological maxims would be superfluous. Thus, it is theoretically preferable to deny them this exclusivity. 106 Suppose the epistemological problem can be skirted by allowing that some theoretically benign generality informs our moral understanding. If deontology may be exhaustive without being particularist, then a separate objection, the conflicts problem, arises. As was true of the epistemological problem, the conflicts problem arises because morality has something to say about almost everything. Because the world is complex, if rights are general, then the evaluation of most morally interesting situations will either depend on more than one rights claim or on some other moral element, each problematic for the claim that deontology is exhaustive of morality. The reason is structural. Our moral intuitions are highly nuanced – often minor changes to a factual situation alter the normative evaluation of that situation. But since a limited number of general norms, because they are general, cannot account for this contextual sensitiv [*923] ity, some other explanation must be offered. Positing a greater number of more specific deontological norms could account for this factual sensitivity. Doing so, however, threatens to reincarnate the epistemological problem. If our norms are relatively few in number, thereby putting them within our epistemic reach, either many norms will apply to each situation to give us the contextual sensitivity that is evident, or some other principles must be at work.

5 thoughts on “The Epistemological Problem

  1. Tom Tom

    I think this makes an interesting argument, but I don't see it as being particularly useful in debate.

    First, it seems to me that the epistemological problem he identifies isn't an issue here. He says that it is impossible to learn every possible deontological injuction because every situation is different, requiring an infinite set of rules. However, to how an epistemologically sound deontology in the instance of the debate, you only need to learn the one(s) applicable to the debate. His beef also seems to apply to consequentialism. Every act has different consequences – to wholly know consequentialism would be just as large of a burden. To be able to apply it to a specific situation would require as much investment as for deontology.

    It also seems a bit implausible that there are an infinite amount of deontological norms required. Some situations are different from others, sure, but save a few dilemmas or trickier situations where one principle may come in conflict with another, it seems like most principles would provide a clear-cut way to act in a certain instance. And unless those specific dilemmas arise, there is no reason they would cast doubt upon deontology's epistemological foundation when applied in other more typical instances.

    Additionally, I think that his criticism of a generic deontological principle also applies equally to consequentialism. He says that if deontology becomes too generic, it would be unable to account for the context of specific situations. Context also matters for consequentialism. Genocide, global warming, and the "kill 1 baby to save 2 dilemma" all present different contexts that should inform our decisionmaking, regardless of whether we are acting within consequentialist or deontological ethics. I don't see why, to pick something random, the Kantian injuction to "do something only if you would endorse everybody doing it" is any more or less blind to context than consequentialism. Whether or not you would endorse everyone doing something is specific to the context of what that something is. Consequentialism and deontology are different methods of resolving contextual situations.

    Consequentialism ultimately relies upon some type of normative judgement about what kinds of consequences we should prevent, and these judgements seem just as susceptible to Stelzig's argument as any deontology. I feel like this card is silent on the issue of death (or any other value) being the most important value, and if anything that kind of value claim seems to be suspect to the same "double bind" he sets up for deontology.

    Not to say that it's a bad card – it certainly makes a complete and coherent warranted argument. However, I feel that the specificity of a specific debate round makes his criticism less relevant as its not a question of whether you should adopt X ethic in all instances but just in this one. His silence on any alternative way to evaluate things which would resolve the issues he brings up or explanation of how it would do that makes it somewhat susceptible to my probably somewhat-unfounded criticism of his argument. It's better than Khalilzad though, so I guess a 10?

  2. Whit

    1. It's just a generic argument. "Problems could arise within your moral system," not "Here are some problems with your specific moral system."

    2. It presupposes the postmodern turn. My understanding (limited to light debate reading) of deontology is that you'd have to win that there is a universal morality and it should apply to everyone in every instance regardless of how they came to know what they know.

    3. It assumes that the epistemology problem and the conflict problem are distinct. It seems that once you've established whose position matters more, then the issue of a conflict tends to work itself out naturally.

    I think its more of an FYI than an argument. 3 tops.

  3. Hunter

    Writing personal opinion before I read others':

    4/10. As I understand it, this card double-binds between rights conflicts and a totally unworkable ethical system. The reason it's a good card is that it's a "new" objection that the team defending deontology has to think about.

    The reason it's a bad card is that the argument seems wrong. The side of the double-bind that says "too many rules = epistemological crisis" is unexplained, and in my reading the author of this card is not proposing rule utilitarianism or classical cost benefit analysis as an actual alternative to deontology. The language is also unnecessarily complicated and too much of the card has to be read in a round to make the double bind argument.

  4. Josh Gonzalez

    Eh, 3/10. It's nothing new. It doesn't even mention Kant, who solved this "riddle" a long time ago when he argued that categorical imperatives don't arise from practice, but from . . . wait for it . . . pure reaseon. One can certainly raise various epistemological challenges to the possibility of logic, but I read this card as saying "well, the problem with deontology is that multiple rules would be super confusing and could potentially conflict." No, they couldn't. That's the point. If you've gotten to the point whereby you worry about potential conflicts at the end, you have, by definition, entered the realm of teleology. Seems to me that the author is using the straw man of rule utilitarianism, rather than arguing about deontology in the first place.

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