4 - The Argument from Inaccessibility  pp. 63-82

The Argument from Inaccessibility

By Folke Tersman

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Realists believe that moral questions have objectively correct answers. According to one of the arguments that were discussed in the last chapter, if there exists radical disagreement over these issues, then a realist must assume, implausibly, that the correctness of those answers cannot be known. Given the problems of determining whether any radical moral disagreement actually exists, someone might be tempted to try to squeeze out the same conclusion from the weaker premise that it is at least possible. For example, Crispin Wright has argued that in order to account for the fact that radical moral disagreements cannot be ruled out a priori, a realist must assume that moral truths “transcend, even in principle, our abilities of recognition.” And that, he insists, is an unreasonable conclusion. Positing undetectable moral truths is as strange as saying that something could be funny even if its funniness evades even the most receptive person.

I call this argument “the argument from epistemic inaccessibility,” and it is to this argument the present chapter is devoted. I shall argue that a realist can respond to it. However, one of the responses makes him vulnerable to the argument that is examined in the next chapter (“the argument from ambiguity”). This means that a complete assessment of the argument from inaccessibility must await the discussion that is going to take place there.


Crispin Wright is not the only advocate of the argument from inaccessibility.


Reference Title: References

Reference Type: reference-list

Reference Type: reference-list

Abreau, D. “On the Theory of Infinitely Repeated Games with Discounting,” Econometrica 56 (1988), 383–396
Anscombe, G. E. M. Intention. Oxford: Blackwell, 1957
Asch, S. E. Social Psychology. New York: Prentice Hall, 1952
Ayer, A. Language, Truth and Logic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1936
Bennigson, T. “Irresolvable Disagreement and the Case Against Moral Realism,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 34 (1996), 411–437
Bergström, L., and F⊘llesdal, D. “Interview with Donald Davidson,” Theoria 60 (1994), 207–225
Blackburn, S. “Moral Realism,” in J. Casey (ed.), Morality and Moral Reasoning. London: Methuen, 1971, 101–124
Blackburn, S. Spreading the Word. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984
Blackburn, S. “Just Causes,” Philosophical Studies 61 (1991), 3–17
Blackburn, S. Essays in Quasi-Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
Blackburn, S. “Attitudes and Contents,” reprinted in Essays in Quasi-Realism, 182–197
Blackburn, S. “Errors and the Phenomenology of Values,” reprinted in Essays in Quasi-Realism, 149–165
Blackburn, S. “The Flight to Reality,” in R. Hursthouse, G. Lawrence, and W. Quinn (eds.), Virtues and Reasons. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, 35–75
Blackburn, S. Ruling Passions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998
Block, N. “Functional Role and Truth Conditions,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. 61 (1987), 157–181
Block, N. “An Advertisement for a Semantics for Psychology,” reprinted in S. Stich and T. Warfield (eds), Mental Representation: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994
Bloomfield, P. “The Rules of ‘Goodness’: An Essay on Moral Semantics,” American Philosophical Quarterly 40 (2003), 197–213
BonJour, L. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985
Boyd, R. “How to Be a Moral Realist,” in G. Sayre-McCord (ed.), Essays on Moral Realism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988, 181–228
Brandt, R. Hopi Ethics: A Theoretical Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954
Brink, D. O. Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989
Burge, T. “Individualism and the Mental,” in P. French, T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein (eds.), Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979, 73–121
Burge, T. “Individualism and Psychology,” Philosophical Review 95 (1986), 3–45
Chagnon, N. A., and Hames, R. “Protein Deficiency and Tribal Warfare in Amazonia: New Data,” Science 203 (1979), 910–913
Chagnon, N. Yanomamö: The Fierce People (5th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1997
Cohen, D., and Nisbett, R. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996
Cohen, D., Nisbett, R., Bowdle, B., Schwarz, N. “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography,’” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70 (1996), 945–960
Conee, E., and Feldman, R. “The Generality Problem for Reliabilism,” Philosophical Studies 89 (1998), 1–29
Cook, J. Morality and Cultural Differences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999
Cooper, D. “Moral Relativism,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 3 (1978), 97–108
Copp, D. “Milk, Honey, and the Good Life on Moral Twin Earth,” Synthese 124 (2000), 113–137
Copp, D. “Realist-Expressivism: A Neglected Option for Moral Realism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 18 (2001), 1–43
Dancy, J. Moral Reasons. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993
Daniels, N. “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics,” Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979), 256–282
Darwall, S., Gibbard, A., Railton, P. “Toward Fin de siècle Ethics,” Philosophical Review 101 (1992), 115–189
Davidson, D. “Toward a Unified Theory of Meaning and Action,” Grazer Philosophische Studien 11 (1980), 1–12
Davidson, D. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984
Davidson, D. Expressing Evaluations, The Lindley Lecture, published as monograph. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1984
Davidson, D. “A New Basis for Decision Theory,” Theory and Decision 18 (1985), 87–98
Davidson, D. “The Structure and Content of Truth,” Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990), 279–328
Davidson, D. “On Quine's Philosophy', Theoria 60 (1994), 184–192
Davidson, D. “The Objectivity of Values,” in C. Gutierrez (ed.), El Trabajo Filosofico de Hoy en el Continente. Bogota: Editorial ABC, 1995, 59–69
Davidson, D. “Objectivity and Practical Reason,” in E. Ullman-Margalit (ed.), Reasoning Practically. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 17–26
Davidson, D. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001
Davidson, D. “The Myth of the Subjective,” reprinted in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, 39–53
Davson-Galle, P. “Arguing, Arguments, and Deep Disagreements,” Journal of Informal Logic 14 (1992), 147–156
Doris, J. M., and Stich, S. P. “As a Matter of Fact: Empirical Perspectives on Ethics,” in F. Jackson, and M. Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming
Dworkin, R. “Objectivity and Truth. You'd Better Believe It,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 25 (1996), 87–139
Dworkin, R. “Reply to Critics.” BEARS, J. Dreier and D. Estlund (eds.), http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Philosophy/bears/homepage.html. Posted September 4, 1997
Dummett, M. Truth and Other Enigmas. London: Duckworth, 1978
Edney, J. “Freeriders en Route to Disaster,” Psychology Today 13 (1979), 80–112
Elster, J. The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
Falk, W. D., “‘Ought’ and Motivation,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 48 (1947–1948), 492–510
Feldman, R. “Logic, Meaning and Conceptual Role,” Journal of Philosophy 69 (1977), 379–408
Feldman, R. “Reliability and Justification,” Monist 68 (1985), 159–174
Field, H. “Logic, Meaning and Conceptual Role,” Journal of Philosophy 69 (1977), 379–408
Field, H. “The Deflationary Conception of Truth,” in G. MacDonald, and C. Wright (eds.), Fact, Science and Morality, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, 55–117
Foot, P. Virtues and Vices. Oxford: Blackwell, 1978
Frankena, W. “Obligation and Motivation in Recent Moral Philosophy,” in A. Melden (ed.), Essays in Moral Philosophy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958, 40–81
F⊘llesdal, D. “The Status of Rationality Assumptions in Interpretation and in the Explanation of Action,” Dialectica 36 (1982), 301–316
Gallie, W. B. “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1955–1956), 167–198
Gallie, W. B. Philosophy and Historical Understanding. London: Chatto and Windus, 1964
Geach, P. T. “Assertion,” Philosophical Review 74 (1965), 449–465
Gibbard, A. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990
Gibbard, A. Thinking How to Live. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003
Goldman, A. H. Moral Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1988
Goldman, A. I “What Is Justified Belief?,” in G. Pappas (ed.), Justification and Knowledge. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1979, 1–23
Gowans, C. W. (ed.), Moral Disagreements: Classic and Contemporary Readings. London: Routledge, 1999
Grandy, R. “Reference, Belief and Meaning,” Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973), 439–452
Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M. and Cohen, J. D. “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment,” Science 293 (2001), 2105–2108
Hardin, G. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968), 1243–1248
Hare, R. The Language of Morals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952
Hare, R. “A ‘Reductio Ad Absurdum’ of Descriptivism,” in S. Shanker (ed.), Philosophy in Britain Today, London: Croom Helm, 1986, 118–136
Harman, G. “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review 84 (1975), 3–22
Harman, G. The Nature of Morality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
Harman, G. “Moral Explanations of Natural Facts – Can Moral Claims Be Tested Against Moral Reality?,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (suppl.) (1986), 57–68
Harman, G. “Moral Philosophy and Linguistics,” in K. Brinkmann (ed.), Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Volume I: Ethics. Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1999, 107–115
Harms, W. F. “Adaptation and Moral Realism,” Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000), 699–712
Harris, M. Cannibals and Kings. New York: Random House, 1977
Harris, M. “Animal Capture and Yanamamo Warfare: Retrospect and New Evidence,” Journal of Anthropological Research 40 (1984), 183–201
Herskovits, M. Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf, 1955
Horgan, T., and Timmons, M. “New Wave Moral Realism Meets Moral Twin Earth,” Journal of Philosophical Research 16 (1990–1991), 447–465
Horgan, T., and Timmons, M. “Troubles on Moral Twin Earth,” Synthese 92 (1992), 221–260
Horgan, T., and Timmons, M. “From Moral Realism to Moral Relativism in One Easy Step,” Critica 28 (1996), 3–39
Horgan, T., and Timmons, M. “Copping Out on Moral Twin Earth,” Synthese 124 (2000), 139–152
Hurley, S. “Objectivity and Disagreement,” in T. Honderich (ed.), Morality and Objectivity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, 54–97
Hurley, S. Natural Reasons, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989
Jackson, F. From Metaphysics to Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998
Jackson, F., and Pettit, P. “A Problem for Expressivism,” Analysis 58 (1998), 239–251
Joyce, R. The Myth of Morality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001
Joyce, R. “Moral Realism and Teleosemantics,” Biology and Philosophy 16 (2001), 725–734
Kripke, S. Naming and Necessity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980
Lehrer, K. Theory of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1990
Lenman, J. “The Externalist and the Amoralist,” Philosophia 27 (1999), 441–457
Lewis, D. “Radical Interpretation,” Philosophical Papers (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 108–121
Lind, J. T. “Do the Rich Vote Conservative because They Are Rich?” http://folk.uio.no/jlind/papers/PartyInc.pdf
Loeb, D. “Moral Realism and the Argument from Disagreement,” Philosophical Studies 90 (1998), 281–303
Lukes, S. “Relativism in its Place,” in M. Hollis and S. Lukes (eds.), Rationality and Relativism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982, 261–305
Mackie, J. Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin, 1977
Mansbridge, J. (ed.), Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990
McDowell, J. “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 52 (Suppl.) (1978) 13–29
McDowell, J. “Values and Secondary Qualities,” in T. Honderich (ed.), Morality and Objectivity. London: Routledge, & Kegan Paul, 1985, 110–129
Merli, D. “Return to Moral Twin Earth,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2002), 207–240
Miller, R. Moral Differences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992
Millikan, R. Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984
Milo, R. D. “Moral Deadlock,” Philosophy 61 (1986), 453–471
Moore, G. E. Ethics. London: Oxford University Press, 1912
Newton-Smith, W. The Rationality of Science. London: Routledge, 1981
Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990
Ostrom, E. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action,” American Political Science Review 92 (1998), 1–22
Parfit, D. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984
Pettit, P. “Embracing Objectivity in Ethics,” in Leiter, B. (ed.), Objectivity in Law and Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 234–286
Pollock, J. L. “Reliability and Justified Belief,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 14 (1984), 103–114
Putnam, H. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” in Mind, Language, and Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, 215–271
Quine, W. V. O. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960
Quine, W. V. O. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” reprinted in From a Logical Point of View (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1961, 20–46
Quine, W. V. O. “Epistemology Naturalized,” in Ontological Relativity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969, 69–90
Quine, W. V. O. “On the Nature of Moral Values,” reprinted in Theories and Things. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981, 55–66
Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930
Ryan, J. “Moral Relativism and the Argument from Moral Disagreement,” Journal of Social Philosophy 34 (2003), 377–386
Salwén, H. Hume's Law. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2003
Sayre-McCord, G. “The Many Moral Realisms,” in G. Sayre-McCord, (ed.), Essays on Moral Realism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988, 1–23
Sayre-McCord, G. “Being a Realist about Relativism (in Ethics),” Philosophical Studies 61 (1991), 155–176
Scanlon, T. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999
Scheuler, G. F. “Modus Ponens and Moral Realism,” Ethics 98 (1988), 492–500
Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism (Julia Annas's and Jonathan Barnes's edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Shafer-Landau, R. “Ethical Disagreement, Ethical Objectivism and Moral Indeterminacy,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (1994), 331–344
Shafer-Landau, R. “Vagueness, Borderline Cases and Moral Realism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1995), 83–96
Sherif, M. The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper & Row, 1936
Singer, P. “How Reliable are our Moral Intuitions?,” Free Inquiry 23 (2003), 19–20
Smart, J. J. C. Ethics, Persuasion and Truth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984
Smith, M. “Objectivity and Moral Realism. On the Significance of the Phenomenology of Moral Experience,” in J. Haldane and C. Wright (eds.), Reality, Representation and Projection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, 235–255
Smith, M. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994
Sosa, E. “The Raft and the Pyramid: Coherence versus Foundations in the Theory of Knowledge,” in P. French, T. Uehling & H. Wettstein (eds.), Midwest Studies in Philosophy 5, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980, 3–25
Stevenson, C. L. Ethics and Language. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944
Stevenson, C. L. Facts and Values. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963
Stout, J. Ethics After Babel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988
Sturgeon, N. “What Difference Does It Make Whether Moral Realism is True?,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (Suppl.) (1986), 115–141
Sturgeon, N. “Moral Explanations,” reprinted in G. Sayre-McCord (ed.), Essays on Moral Realism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988, 229–255
Sturgeon, N. “Contents and Causes,” Philosophical Studies 61 (1991), 19–37
Sturgeon, N. “Moral Disagreement and Moral Relativism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (1994), 80–115
Tersman, F. “Utilitarianism and the Idea of Reflective Equilibrium,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 29 (1991), 395–406
Tersman, F. “Coherence and Disagreement,” Philosophical Studies 65 (1992), 305–317
Tersman, F. Reflective Equilibrium. An Essay in Moral Epistemology. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1993
Tersman, F. “Crispin Wright on Moral Disagreement,” Philosophical Quarterly 48 (1998), 359–365
Tersman, F. “Quine on Ethics,” Theoria 64 (1998), 84–98
Tersman, F. “Are We Lovers of the Good?,” Synthese 138 (2004), 247–260
Tierney, P. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. London and New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000
Tolhurst, W. “The Argument from Moral Disagreement,” Ethics 97 (1987), 610–621
Turnbull, C. The Mountain People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972
Wedgwood, R. “Conceptual Role Semantics for Moral Terms,” Philosophical Review 110 (2001), 1–30
Westermarck, E. Ethical Relativity. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932
Wiggins, D. “Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life,” in Needs, Values, Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987, 87–138
Williams, B. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana, 1985
Williamson, T. Vagueness. London: Routledge, 1994
Williamson, T. “A Critical Study of Truth and Objectivity,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 1 (1993), 130–144
Wong, D. Moral Relativity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984
Wright, C. Truth and Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992
Wright, C. “Realism: Pure and Simple?,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2 (1994), 327–341
Wright, C. “Truth in Ethics,” in B. Hooker (ed.), Truth in Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, 1–18
Wright, C. “On Being in Quandary,” Mind 110 (2001), 45–98