Ethical Theory Spring 2019

An Objectivist Account of Moral Knowledge


Shafer-Landau believes that morality is objective. In that respect, he is like Brink. He is unlike Brink because he does not think that moral truths are discovered like scientific truths are. Rather, he thinks that morality is a distinctive area of knowledge and that moral truths are discovered through philosophy.

How do you come to have ethical knowledge?

We spent most of our discussion time talking about how you know things in ethics. For instance, what would you do if you faced a difficult moral choice that you did not know how to answer? Where would you go to find the answer?

We talked about the possibility that reflecting in the manner that philosophers do, by considering dizzying numbers of hypothetical cases and abstract principles, could undermine what had seemed to be knowledge. If you become convinced that anyone can argue for any side, you just give up on thinking that one or the other is correct.

Jacob pointed to Eric Schwitzgebel’s studies suggesting that professors who study ethics don’t behave any better than those who don’t. For instance, they seem to be more prone to steal library books.

When I asked what you would do if you had to make a decision about, say, terminating life support for a relative or yourself, Zoë gave the kind of answer I would have given. She said that she would talk about it with friends and family. Philosophers weren’t on her list. (I would add that I would talk with doctors who had experience with the kind of case under discussion, on the assumption that they would have a good sense of what the quality of life would really be like. Simon disagreed.)

The upshot of all this was to challenge Shafer-Landau’s assertion that moral knowledge is acquired through philosophy. I don’t mean to take everything back from this class. I think you can learn a lot about ethics through philosophy. But I would be surprised if it could supplant all the other ways of gaining moral knowledge.

Key Points

You should have an opinion about how moral knowledge is acquired.


Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2004. Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? Oxford: Oxford University Press.