Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

The Epistemology of Disagreement and Moral Disputes

Markus Seethaler

Thursday 2 December 2021

09:00 - 09:40

Zoom 1-2

The central question in the epistemology of disagreement concerns the rational reaction to learning that others hold opposing beliefs to oneself. I argue against one-size-fits-all solutions to this question and for an approach that puts strong emphasis on contextual factors. According to this view, disagreement provides us with evidence for an error in our reasoning. The question regarding the rational reaction to this evidence depends on its strength in the concrete situation and does not allow for a universally valid answer. Applied to moral disagreement, this approach shows that we need a nuanced understanding of different kinds of moral disputes.

In the debate about the epistemology of disagreement, we commonly find two idealizations that sometimes contribute to too simplistic approaches to the relating phenomena. One is the concept of peerhood, the other the focus on disagreements between just two individuals. Given the fact how demanding it is to define and identify epistemic parity, endorsing a more realistic and less idealized conception of epistemic peers seems more promising. Regarding disagreement between more than two individuals, it is usually assumed that beliefs of others are only relevant if they are formed independently. I will outline why this assumption is wrong and dependent beliefs are always relevant for peer disagreements, if the individuals are not simply parroting the beliefs of others. Investigating these two factors with a more practical orientation, speaks against strictly steadfast and conciliatory approaches to peer disagreement. Instead, I argue that there is something right about both. While steadfast views emphasize the worth of self-trust and the first-person perspective, conciliatory ones have the plausible assumption on their side that disagreement makes us aware of our fallibility. Therefore, I suggest an approach that acknowledges the general significance of disagreement while still emphasizing the importance of contextual factors.

Applying this approach to moral disagreement and combining it with the plausible observation that morality is a complex and complicated area, calls attention to the need for a nuanced understanding of moral disagreement. I argue that one aspect that needs more consideration is their level of resolvability. Some moral disagreements are resolvable by pointing out the mistakes one involved party made. Others are not resolvable in this way, because they are faultless and involve different weighting and balancing of moral values. Still others are not resolvable at all, because they are deep and combine local moral disagreements with disagreements about foundational epistemic principles and doxastic practices. This nuanced picture of moral disagreement helps to identify and deal with important differentiations that otherwise would get lost.

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