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But of course the claim that the sort of evidence one should use in ethics is of the same kind we normally take to be epistemically reliable in the sciences is itself far from obviously correct. Some proponents of naturalism (and Nietzsche was hardly a late 20th century naturalist, nor do I believe for a second that he would have been remotely kind to its adherents)like to present their position as common sense and the opposing view--that some questions can be reasonably addressed independently of empirical data--as a result of groupthink or adherence to an ossified view of philosophy. But psychologizing your opponents in order to discredit them is the oldest trick in the book, and not a very impressive one. Some rather interesting psychologizing could be done with regard to philosophical naturalism as well. For example, is there too much reliance on the idea that science alone reveals the world as it really is? Do some philosophers suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the sciences? Anyone can play this game.

But I think there's another important issue. Do or should philosophers aim at "Truth", or should they (and do they, in fact) aim at something else: giving an interesting account of human existence, one that preserves important elements of our self-understanding and ties them together without attempting to simply reduce or eliminate them. I think that's what anti-naturalists are after, and that strikes me as a very good thing, which of course is not the same as an endorsement of it as the *right* way to go. (Of course if you simply say that philosophy aims at Truth, and you define Truth as the outcome of a circumscribed range of investigative procedures, then you've simply defined all good philosophy as naturalistic. But why should any non-naturalist be impressed by that display of conceptual tweaking?)

Marcus Arvan

Roman: I'm very sympathetic to all of your points here. I don't find Nietzsche's general critique persuasive at the end of the day -- but still, I think it (and Leiter's paper) raise some good sociological questions about how our discipline works. I, at least, have worried for a long time that in some respects our discipline isn't driven by truth *or* understanding as much as it is (sometimes) moved by the intuitions of influential philosophers. I think that this is not only a worry worth worrying about a great deal, but one that experimental philosophers have begun to unearth and bring to the forefront of philosophical discussion.

Dan Dennis

I think that the aim of ethics is to provide ideas and arguments which help individuals reduce the extent to which their decision-making is subject to ‘constitutive luck’. In other words, if one is to be other than a prisoner of the upbringing, past experience, genes etc that one chanced to have, then one needs to establish some independent, rational, basis to one’s decision-making.

Thus ethics is not in the same business as science – is not aiming to describe the physical world – so there is no question of there being a conflict between ethics and science.


Dan-I tend to agree, but the problems arise when we get into the details. A clear response here would be to argue that no "independent, rational, basis" for decision-making exists, so if we want a basis for decision-making, it will have to be found in something empirical. (Or it just won't exist, and the project of ethics as you describe it turns out to be illusory.)

Marcus--yeah, I know you worry about that, but I suspect it is to some extent unavoidable that intuitions will be involved at some crucial stage (for example, at the stage of deciding what method to use!). If they're bad ones, chances are they'll be questioned at some point. Do you really have a sense that there are intuitions out there that are (1) wrong, and (2) if you put together a solid argument for what's wrong with them, it would still be impossible to publish it? I mean, yeah, to some extent we are all--insofar as it's not possible to question EVERYTHING in a single paper, and insofar as we need to write papers--slaves to someone's dogmas. But without that, we'd have to start every philosophical inquiry from scratch, which wouldn't be conducive to having a conversation.

David Morrow

Chris Sula and I wrote a paper a few years ago about sociological influences in philosophy: http://chrisalensula.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/morrow_sula-naturalized_metaphilosophy.pdf

Or if you're really into the topic, I highly recommend Randall Collins' book, Sociology of Philosophies.

Nick Smyth

A proper evaluation of Leiter's remarks would be very difficult, but I do not think there can be any principled rejection of his line of questioning, in spite of the heckles it will raise. If Socrates is our hero, then self-knowledge must be our first priority, and this must include some knowledge of the ways in which our personality and social position may influence our thoughts and arguments.

However, as Annette Baier once pointed out, this Nietzschean "unmasking" is a game that can be played interminably. In other words, there is always room for a tu quoque: Leiter aside, these sorts of disciplinary complaints tend to come from less successful philosophers, or from those who feel slighted or marginalized in some way. There is an even more obvious Nietzschean analysis of *that* phenomenon, since Nietzsche wrote whole books about how the frustration of the Will to Power leads to the invention of doctrines which neatly re-cast more powerful persons as self-deceived and/or defective (this is a popular Freudian defense mechanism if ever there was one). A crucial task for anyone interested in this line of thought is to ensure that their own position cannot be undermined in precisely the same manner.


"the idea that the objectivity of moral truth does not depend on whether such truths can be located in a naturalistic picture of the world"

Leiter's objection to moral realism or objectivism seems to be nothing more than a familiar and not very compelling objection that first-year students always raise. He thinks realism is absurd because it can't be backed up by some specific type of evidence that he likes, or because it doesn't fit into some "naturalistic" conception (which the realist doesn't share). There are many decent replies to this kind of objection, of course. Am I missing something? Is he offering some less flimsy and unreflective reason for treating this important philosophical position as if it were so absurd that its acceptance by philosophers must be explained sociologically rather than philosophically?

Anthony Carreras

I think Leiter's claim is not that beliefs in non-natrualist moral realism *must* be explained sociologically, but that those beliefs *can* be explained sociologically. I think his claim is that philosophers' beliefs in non-naturalist moral realism can, in fact, be shown to have a certain etiology, and that that etiology should lead us to be suspicious about the epistemic warrant of those beliefs.


I take it that Anthony is right about Leiter's remarks. The important point is that adherence to pretty much any position--naturalism included--can be explained sociologically. There are certainly some interesting things psychologically and sociologically going on with Nietzsche, for example. So if the existence of a sociological explanation for a position is to count as evidence for rejection of that position, we are in trouble. If it is only to count as a reason to be suspicious of the position, well then, shouldn't we be suspicious in any case?

Dan Dennis

Roman 12.56. I agree. The account needs to be provided, and it may fail to be provided. Though if we do not manage to provide then that may because of our own inabilities rather than the impossibility of coming up with such an account.

However I do not see how mere empirical observations about how the universe now is, can on their own provide a criterion for selecting how to change the universe and thus for selecting how to act.

BTW your 2.28 is spot on.

Anthony Carreras

Hi Roman,

"The important point is that adherence to pretty much any position--naturalism included--can be explained sociologically... So if the existence of a sociological explanation for a position is to count as evidence for rejection of that position, we are in trouble."

But isn't this precisely Leiter's (Nietzsche's) point, that we *are* in trouble on this score? Isn't the point that we should realize that all of our philosophical positions ultimately have non-rational causes, and that once we realize this, we'll be liberated from the strictures of discursive rationality and be in a position to live well?

I should say I'm not trying to defend Leiter's (or Nietszche's) view here. I'm just trying to understand it.

Dan Dennis

Anthony, if that were the case, how are we supposed to know what constitutes living well?

Anthony Carreras


I'm not sure. Presumably by following our affects and figuring out which of our values are life-affirming and which are life-denying. And yes, any view about which values are life-affirming and which are life-denying can itself be shown to have a non-rational etiology, but I take it that Leiter's Nietzsche's point is that our views are bound to be more useful (i.e. conducive to living well?) if we are honest with ourselves about their real causes and if we do not engage in post-hoc dialectical rationalizations of those views.


@Anthony, Roman:

No doubt belief in moral realism _can_ be explained sociologically, but is it best explained that way? Is it better explained that way, at least, than in other easily imaginable ways? Only in that case would Leiter's skepticism (and scorn) be warranted. Now realists (like me) do actually give all kinds of arguments for realism that we think are quite compelling. That's what we think we think, anyway, and what we think best explains our belief in moral realism. Unless Leiter has rationally compelling objections to those arguments, or to moral realism, there's no reason for him to think that a sociological explanation is better (or equally good). But then there's no etiological argument for skepticism either.

Leiter seems to think realism is implausible simply because (a) can't be supported by a certain kind of evidence and (b) it is not compatible with a certain metaphysical picture ("naturalism"). That's how the passage reads to me. But if (a) and (b) are meant to be reasons against realism that are so compelling that it makes no difference what arguments realists may have for their position, he is making a familiar argument of many first-year students to which there are familiar answers. If instead he is not even attempting to present an argument against realism or an objection to the arguments taken to support it, the mere fact that there can be (or is) a sociological explanation is surely not enough to raise legitimate doubts about the position.

More generally, unmasking arguments directed against positions taken by their proponents to rest on good reasons are just fallacies unless paired with good objections to those reasons. The unmasker needs to show that the target belief _can_ be explained in this non-rational way, and also needs to show that there is no good rational explanation for it. He needs to show, at least, that it's unlikely that a philosopher could come to hold that belief simply on the basis of the rational force of the arguments taken to support it.

Dan Dennis

Anthony: But what grounds have I for choosing to do what I happen to think is life affirming? And surely what a person thinks is life affirming will depend upon all sorts of chance events, including upbringing, past experience etc. – unless he manages to establish an independent rational basis to those views? Likewise with regards to what is ‘conducive to living well’. Certainly honesty and self understanding are essential. But understanding why you currently think what you do – genes, upbringing, past experience etc – does not provide you with grounds for what to think and how to act in future…

Jasper: That sounds right...


Jasper: just out of curiosity, do you really believe that you've come to your beliefs on the basis of compelling arguments? What do others think? I'm genuinely curious. I know that, professionally, we're supposed to insist that this is the best way to reach beliefs. But how often do we really do this, rather than come up with what seems like a cool idea and then develop an argument for it? Or start out with a belief and then argue for it? How often, for example, do you read a paper and, because of the force of its argument, come to accept its conclusion--at least on a topic you care about, rather than one you're fairly indifferent to (and/or don't have much background in)? Isn't it far more common to read a paper, disagree with its conclusion, and *then* look for flaws in the argument?

Maybe this would be better as a separate discussion, but I am curious what people honestly think of this issue. On the other hand, even if we didn't do this--that is, even if our beliefs could be explained by psychological factors--I don't think that really makes Leiter's approach work. For example, I think most people who believe in God come to that belief as a result of psychological and sociological processes. But that's certainly not why I think they are wrong.


Hi Roman,
I certainly don't think I've come to _all_ of my beliefs on the basis of compelling arguments. Not even all of my philosophical beliefs, or most of them. I do think, though, that I try to hold my beliefs rationally. I'm a moral realist because I'm pretty certain there are moral truths, and every non-realist theory of truth seems false to me. (And the arguments for those theories seem bad.) No doubt there's a lot more to be said about how I came to believe in moral realism. Probably all kinds of "psychological and sociological processes" enter into the explanation of why I believe there are moral truths, or why I'm not persuaded by non-realist theories of truth. I'm ignorant of most of these things. But I think that forming a belief in that kind of way, whatever the details, is often a rational process. (Maybe that's what you're suggesting at the end of your post?) If I should be skeptical about my belief in moral realism because of its "etiology", that must be because there are solid, specific reasons for thinking that the particular causes of my belief -- e.g., the causes of my ways of weighing evidence, or my intuitions -- are not epistemically good. Only then would we have reason to reject the hypothesis that philosophers like me believe in realism because we find it to be the most rational position.

Dan Dennis

Hi Roman

I have been thinking philosophically about what sort of person to be and how to act since I was around 12 or 13 (though I did not label it ‘thinking philosophically’ back then). That is largely why I am the person I am today. So the answer I would give to your question is ‘yes’.

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