Moral Disagreement

23 02 2012

If there’s one uncontested fact in ethics, it’s that just about everybody disagrees with just about everybody else on at least one moral issue, probably many more. That’s moral disagreement for you, and it’s a topic of great concern to many moral philosophers and metaethicists.

Except that moral philosophy somewhat bizarrely construes moral disagreement in an excruciatingly narrow sense, and thus entirely skips an extremely interesting and important aspect of the phenomenon.

See, most moral philosophers look at moral disagreement through the lens of wondering whether moral realism is true or not. If (a popular rendering of) moral realism is true, then moral disagreement ought not exist, at least in an ideal situation. After all, there’d presumably be some moral fact that would settle the disagreement one way or another.

However, the stubborn persistence of moral disagreement could be evidence that such moral facts don’t exist. And we’ve all been to a dinner party where there’s been an overly lengthy conversation about capital punishment, abortion, gay marriage or whatever, and no matter how long the argument goes, both sides stomp away unmoved.

“Whoa! Hold up there,” says the moral realist. “Maybe the disagreement isn’t real disagreement. Maybe it’s only apparent disagreement.”

Maybe individuals on both sides don’t disagree over the pertinent moral facts, but they disagree about the non-moral facts or the details of the circumstances surrounding the issue. Or maybe at least one side is biased in some way. Or perhaps one or both sides suffer from some cognitive impairment that prevents them from appreciating the blunt truth of the moral facts. Etc.

In order for moral disagreement to be a problem for moral realism, it can’t be susceptible to these “defusing explanations”, as they’re called by John Doris and Alexandra Plakias (2008). Moral disagreement is only a problem for moral realism if it’s fundamental moral disagreement. It’s only really disagreement if the respective sides are ideally situated, ideally rational and have access to all the salient non-moral facts.


This whole palava is just another chimera offered by contemporary metaethics. I suggest it misses the point of moral disagreement and its relevance to ethical enquiry.

Now, I’m not terribly interested in debating the existence of moral facts, mainly because I don’t think they do exist. But even if they did exist, just restricting discussion of moral disagreement to fundamental moral disagreement ignores the fact that just about everybody disagrees with just about everybody else on at least one moral issue.

And that seems to me to be something worth explaining. Just saying everyone in recorded history who has disagreed with someone else is ignorant, biased or stupid doesn’t seem to be a very satisfactory answer.

So, in my thesis I draw a distinction between two types of moral disagreement. The first is strong disagreement. It’s basically the fundamental moral disagreement mentioned above. It’s the disagreement that two individuals would have if they happen to be ideally situated.

However, since I find such a scenario utterly implausible except in abstracto, and I can’t even imagine what two individuals in such a situation would be like or would argue about, then I’m happy to largely ignore it.

The other type is weak moral disagreement. This is the type of moral disagreement that we see in the world every day, splayed across the media, fought out in pubs and across the table at dinner parties. Weak moral disagreement doesn’t require that the respective individuals in the argument are anything special, only that they’re not pathologically impaired such that any kind of argument is a struggle.

And weak moral disagreement is also compatible with moral realism being true (i.e. one or both individuals are ignorant of the relevant moral facts etc), as well as with moral realism being false (i.e. the individuals disagree for some other reason).

We know weak moral disagreement exists, even if we can’t be 100% sure that strong moral disagreement exists. And just because weak moral disagreement tells us nothing about moral realism, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

I, for one, want to know why people disagree about moral issues in the real world. And because I happen to not believe in moral facts, I want to know all those other reasons people might disagree, such as ignorance of non-moral facts, bias, emotional predilections, cognitive impairment, environmental contingencies etc. Or maybe that there isn’t one universal objective moral code that applies for everyone at all times and in all places.

And I suspect that a thorough account of why people disagree might tell us a heck of a lot about ethics, ethical discourse and, lo, moral agreement.

It baffles me that so many words are spilt in journals and books about the dubious strong moral disagreement, while the far more tangible weak moral disagreement is overlooked.




One response

24 02 2012
Mark Sloan

It seems to me that “so many words are spilt in journals and books about the dubious strong moral disagreement, when the far more tangible weak moral disagreement is overlooked” because much of professional moral philosophy is done and has been done in service of goals other than cultural utility.

The goal of much of moral philosophy appears to be merely the pleasure of solving interesting problems in logic (a hedonistic goal) in a difficult field (morality) with little to no regard for cultural utility.

Your perhaps tongue in cheek bafflement is because you are taking an engineer’s view of morality something like “How can I use what is known about morality to produce the most culturally useful moral guidance?”
I like your distinction between strong and weak moral disagreements. We will have weak moral disagreements with us always. I expect we will also have some level of strong moral disagreements even if general agreement is reached on the existence of moral facts. (Or, as the variation I argue for, the existence of at least one empirical moral fact suitable for defining culturally useful instrumental oughts.)

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