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Moral Epistemology – can we ground moral knowledge?


Moral epistemology is concerned, like epistemology, with the justification of beliefs. In particular – moral beliefs. Unlike many beliefs, moral beliefs are not cognitively observable (Tramel, 2003). The term ‘moral beliefs’ is interchangeable with principles, statements that determine how we should act and react in particular situations (Gale, 2006). For example, we hold a principle that we shouldn’t murder people. But why? The task of moral epistemology is to ground our moral beliefs, to show through justification that our principles are not merely arbitrary and have epistemic worth. If we fail to ground our moral beliefs, then we may need to embrace scepticism, a rejection that our morality can be grounded. After this, we can either assume the worth of moral principles and continue living normally (Matrix or no Matrix), or live amorally (if that is even possible). I will be arguing that we will not need to collapse into scepticism. Moral principles can be grounded, and while its grounding may be unsatisfactory for some, there is enough justification for our moral beliefs to not be considered completely arbitrary. I will be showing how morality can be grounded by examining two major approaches of grounding knowledge: coherentism and foundationalism. If either or both can succeed, then morality can be grounded. First, I will present a system of evaluating how we test our morality in either system, then applying it to foundationalism and then to coherentism. Overall, I will find that we can ground our moral beliefs through an interrogation of how we establish moral beliefs, their purpose and by using foundationalism and coherentism.

Why do we value morality? In establishing how we establish moral principles, it is important to determine what function morality serves. In daily life, we tend not to interrogate why morality matters. We evoke moral principles instinctively. When someone is murdered, we think of that act as being immoral. But morality does become less clear when evoking certain principles. For instance: prostitution. Conservatives may argue that prostitution is immoral, while Libertarians may contend that it is not. While murder seems to be a clear-cut principle, prostitution muddies the moral waters. Does this mean that there isn’t a common basis for morality? Not necessarily. If questioned, conservatives may argue that prostitution is immoral because it threatens the family or the cohesiveness of society. Libertarians disagree with that assessment, but don’t disagree with the principle of a cohesive society. In this way, it is revealed that while the conclusions on a principle may be different, they can both find common ground. The difference comes in the assessment. This is simultaneously encouraging and disheartening. It suggests that while we may have common foundational principles, we may not lead to the same conclusions, but it also means there is a possibility of a common ground. All that needs to be overcome is the differing assessments from the shared principles.

But how do we establish a first principle? Foundationalism seeks to establish a foundational principle from which we can derive all others. To bring an image to the approach, it is building a strong foundation so that the house can stand firmly. This original, first or foundational principle needs to be self-evident, so that it can stand as a worthy foundation for all principles and beliefs derived from it, and so to prevent an infinite regress (Sosa, 2009: 24). As Sosa (2009) argues, however, it is hard to find self-evident non-mathematical belief, a priori beliefs (Sosa, 2009: 27). This may be due to applying too strict criteria on self-evidence. The function of morality is to serve as a basis for behaviour in society. Society itself then becomes an assumed factor, that solipsists may reject. But solipsism is irrelevant in moral epistemology. For the sake of discipline, we need to assume the existence of other humans and beings. In this way, we need to bite the bullet and accept that there are some things that are real: humans and interaction between humans. With that safe assumption, we can start determining more qualitatively valuable first principles.

But how do we determine these principles at all? Simply, intuition. David Hume argued that humans have a ‘gut-feeling’ about morality, calling them ‘sentiments’ (Dabay, 2016). This seems to be true of many of us. When we think of murder, the usual person will have a gut-feeling against it. But not everyone seems to have this gut-feeling. As is often the problem with ethics and moral debates, we are obsessed with exceptions. There are people in the world who don’t seem to share our intuitions. But there do seem to be evolutionary psychological phenomena that predispose humans to act in certain ways (Copp, 2008: 186).

Conversely to intuition, are principles. Kant argued that we establish moral principles through a process of reason (Dabay, 2016). The problem with establishing principles through pure reason is how do we establish non-arbitrary principles in the first place? Rather, reason and intuition should be combined. We should establish our intuitive sense of moral principles and put them to the test – firstly, of foundationalism and (later) through coherentism.

Rather than starting with a foundational principle, we should intuitively seek out one of our more established moral principles and then interrogate it to establish if it has a foundational principle that is self-evident. The criteria for self-evidence in this essay is not going to be strict logic so that only truisms and mathematics can succeed, but will be a principle that doesn’t seem to need overt justification itself. The intuitive principle we can use is: don’t murder people. Why? The Darwinian approach to morality is that we evolved moral behaviour (Copp, 2008: 201). Those with the best moral principles survive because they are congruent to survival and thus they survive to spread the principles to their off-spring. Think of it as social genetics. This explains differing moral principles in different contexts while also explaining generally common principles. Cannibalism as a moral principle isn’t conducive to survival, so societies that allow cannibalism tended to die out. This method links to an approach called the “Society Centered Moral Theory”, which argues that morality is based around forming norms conducive to maintaining society (Copp, 2008: 198). Why do we want to maintain society? Return to the Darwinian principle of survival. Society helps us, as individuals, to survive. So, the principle we arrive at is self-preservation. Our desire for self-preservation seems self-evident. We can go further and examine the biological urges that make us desire self-preservation, but that is only of importance in pure epistemology. For the sake of justifying moral beliefs, the fact that we generally desire self-preservation is self-evident enough and intellectually valuable. From this principle, we can derive more principles, using reason to establish overarching principles based on this self-evident belief.

But what if we refuse to acknowledge that we can have foundational principles? Are we then doomed to scepticism? Coherentism presents an alternative to foundationalism, arguing that we can justify beliefs by forming them into coherent and logically consistent sets (Tramel, 2003). What matters to the coherentist in moral epistemology is that all our moral beliefs exist in harmony. One may counter by asking how we start a set without any foundational principles. It seems a bit arbitrary to just take random principles and put them together. As argued on the Theosophical Ruminations, “just because a system is consistent does not mean it is true” (Theosophical Ruminator, 2009). It is plausible that a consistent set of beliefs could be wrong. As Nielsen (1982) argues, there can be consistently immoral or amoral people (Nielsen, 1982: 103). This leads to another debate, which unfortunately cannot be delved deeper due to the limitations of this essay. As such, it will be assumed that Nielsen is correct in this argument.

Does this mean we should abandon coherentism? No. Coherentism serves a good purpose. Coherency and logical consistency in justifying our beliefs does seem intuitively valuable. As argued earlier, we gain many of our moral beliefs from intuition. The problem comes when our intuitions clash. Coherentism could be used to mend this friction between intuitions. But even then, we need an overarching principle from which the others must cohere. This is where foundationalism returns. Foundationalism presents a valuable principle from which to derive other principles. The problem with it comes that we may not be able to prove it to be self-evident without a doubt. Coherentism combined with a less strict foundationalism allows us to establish a strong principle from which to establish a coherent set.

As an aside, the fact that coherentism could establish an incorrect set of moral principles doesn’t mean it fails in grounding morality. It just means it may fail to establish a correct set of morals for humans. Humans have intuitive moral senses, as argued earlier, and coherentism could hypothetically ignore this. But that doesn’t mean it can’t ground moral beliefs. A consistent set of moral beliefs that wouldn’t apply to us may apply to some odd alien race, or orcs. This phenomenon of morality being species specific warrants further investigation in another paper.

Foundationalism runs into the flaw of principles not being strong enough. Coherentism runs into the flaw of seeming arbitrary. What strengthens them both is an evolutionary phenomenon (called the Darwinian approach) that suggests that morality evolves and that humans do show signs of an intuitive sense of morality (Copp, 2008: 186). The task of the moral epistemologist is to utilise this existing framework of evolved morality and use it to establish foundational principles that can then be put into a coherent set. Grounding happens when we establish what is the common feature that underlies our common morality. This may end up being the foundational principle. In this way, foundationalism does seem stronger, but I do believe that coherentism has its place in tying together our warring intuitions and principles. Without foundational principles as a framework, however, coherentism collapses into arbitrariness.

Overall, I contest that morality can be grounded and, in multiple ways, depending on how strict one wants to be. Intuitions provide a good starting framework for how to examine our moral beliefs, with the Darwinian approach expanding on it to show how our morality evolves, also suggesting the function of morality. With this function in mind, we can start formulating foundational principles. While a truly self-evident principle may not be possible within epistemology as a whole (this is up to debate), moral epistemology should bite the bullet on sufficiently strong principles. Coherentism is weaker, as it could hypothetically establish a consistent set of incorrect moral principles. But the methodology of coherentism could be applied to intuitionism, the Darwinian approach and even foundationalism, as logical consistency is epistemically important. Overall, through interrogating how we establish moral beliefs, their purpose and utilising foundationalism and coherentism and tools, I have shown how moral beliefs can be grounded.


Copp, D., 2008. Darwinian Skepticism about Moral Realism. Philosophical Issues, 18, 186-206.

Dabay, T., 2016. Justifying Our Moral Judgments. [Online] Available at: https://philosophynow.org/issues/112/Justifying_Our_Moral_Judgments [Accessed 17 October 2017].

Gale, T., 2006. MORAL PRINCIPLES: THEIR JUSTIFICATION. [Online] Available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/moral-principles-their-justification [Accessed 17 October 2017].

Nielsen, K., 1982. On needing a moral theory: rationality, considered judgements and the grounding of morality. Metaphilosophy, 13(2), 97-116.

Sosa, E., 2009. Classical Foundationalism. In Reflective Knowledge: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 24-44.

Theosophical Ruminator, 2009. Can Morality be Grounded Outside of God? [Online] Available at: https://theosophical.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/can-morality-be-grounded-outside-of-god/ [Accessed 17 October 2017].

Tramel, P., 2003. Moral Epistemology. [Online] Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/mor-epis/ [Accessed 17 October 2017].