Ethical Evidence, Ethical Experience, and Shamelessness (guest post)


“A kind of science-envy is often visible in much of what analytic philosophers have had to say about the question of evidence in ethics… In some cases, however, what deprives us of the truth is not scientism, but other forms of prejudice.”

In the following guest post, Sophie Grace Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at The Open University, discusses what counts as evidence in moral philosophy, how methodological norms have excluded certain forms of evidence, and why this is a problem.

This is the first in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.

(Posts in this series will remain pinned to the top of the homepage for several days following initial publication.)


[photo of cases painted by Robyn Rich]

Ethical Evidence, Ethical Experience, and Shamelessness
by Sophie Grace Chappell 

Scientists, we’re told, start by compiling data, e.g. observations of the positions of the stars and planets over time, and then construct a theory that makes sense of those observations. Some philosophers say explicitly that they see the moral philosopher’s job as analogous. The scientist’s task, they tell us, is to build a scientific theory, a structure of laws or lawlike generalizations that neatly fits and explains the scientific data; likewise the moral theorist’s task is to build a moral theory, also consisting of laws or generalizations, that neatly fits and explains the moral data.

This story is bad philosophy of science. There are some examples in science where what is going on is, at least in part, something like this points-to-pattern model of science (if you want a ruder name, call it the Rorschach-ink-blot model): we do a survey and find a correlation, and then confabulate a generalizable reason for that correlation. But there are plenty of other examples in science where what is going on is nothing like this. Much science is not about developing a theory at all, but about monitoring and measurement, e.g. of atmospheric CO2 or mean global temperature; or it is about invention, e.g. making a COVID vaccine or a rechargeable battery or a solar-energy panel. And even where the scientist’s primary aim is explanatory theory-building rather than measurement or new technology, her explanations need not be general in form: the explanations provided by Newton’s laws, and the explanation why transition metals are conductive, are general in ways that the explanations of the Wall Street Crash and the San Andreas Fault simply aren’t.

The points-to-pattern model of science fails because it fails—ironically enough—to account adequately for everything that actually goes on under the aegis of science. A points-to-pattern model of moral theory seems even less likely to succeed. For a start: what, if anything, could it possibly mean to talk of the moral data?

“If anything”: I have myself sometimes said that “Nothing in ethics stands to general normative truths as data stands to theory in science.” I now think that is true, but understated: not that many things stand in that relation in science either, not at least if the relation is construed as the points-to-pattern model.

There is still a good question in the offing: “What is evidence in ethics?” This is a question that ethicists should ask themselves more. A bit of methodological consciousness-raising can get us away from the points-to-pattern model that, despite everything, seems all too often to be our implicit, and so uncriticized, method in ethics. Reflecting on the question may also dispel a kind of misplaced methodological guilt that ca haunt ethicists. The move from evidence to theory is supposed to be a move that begins from the facts, and ethicists have been inoculated against the very idea of “moral facts”. Facts, they think, are one thing, and values quite another.

For sure, though, philosophers have found all sorts of different (and not necessarily competing) accounts of evidence in ethics: thought-experiments and isolation tests and the method of cases, “toy” models and intuition-pumps, heuristics, and the various methods that call themselves experimental philosophy.

Two particularly important answers have been “intuitions” and “harm and benefit”; both deserve comment. My comment on the first is that philosophers’ conceptions of “ethical intuitions” have ranged from the grossly implausible to the completely trivial, with surprisingly little in the middle of the range. No one should agree that there is a special and mysteriously automatic source of directly-cognized non-inferential moral knowledge called “intuitions”. Everyone should agree that, if people just want to call our unsystematic but reflective moral beliefs “intuitions”, then they may.

My comment on the second is that too many ethicists have shied away from taking evidence of harm and benefit as evidence for ethics because, apparently, they are afraid of appearing to be consequentialists. For one thing, this seems an oddly naïve affirmation of the consequent: I can trot without being a horse, and I can use consequentialist methods without being a consequentialist. For another, taking harm and benefit as ethical evidence, evidence for moral verdicts, is not a consequentialist method anyway. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Anscombe, Foot, and Williams all use this method, and no one is more clearly non-consequentialist than them.

With or without the points-to-pattern model of moral theory, a kind of science-envy is often visible in much of what analytic philosophers have had to say about the question of evidence in ethics. This bias is noticeable in my list above; two items that the list should certainly contain, but doesn’t, are wow-moments, epiphanies, and stories, narratives (especially first-person ones).

I have written a book about the first of these categories (Epiphanies: an Ethics of Experience, OUP 2022). One thing that I hope is plain from that book is how much of our ethical reflection and justification in real life does not take a scientific form so much as a poetic or aesthetic one. Whatever the metaphysics of value may be, its epistemology, for us, is very often an epistemology of being presented with values, being struck by values, perhaps even being overwhelmed by them, in the way that we are struck or overwhelmed by beauty, or the otherwise dramatic, in art or nature.

The second category, that of narrative, overlaps and is continuous with the category of epiphany: most epiphanies have their full meaning only within some narrative structure, and many, perhaps most, ethically significant narratives are about—or are—epiphanies. Though some scientific explanations are clearly narrative in form, as with the San Andreas Fault, still narrative too is more naturally seen as an aesthetic or artistic category than a scientific one.

We have then a wide variety of types of evidence in ethics, and simple-minded science-envying prejudice should not be allowed to blind us to that variety, or to rob us of the epistemic opportunities that this variety creates for us.

In some cases, however, what deprives us of the truth is not scientism, but other forms of prejudice.

A particular priority is rightly given to some forms of first-person narrative as ethical evidence. It is so, for instance, with racial oppression. On the subject of slavery in the ante-bellum Confederacy, no one has more right to speak than the slaves themselves. What they say is—ceteris paribus—overriding as ethical evidence. If their owners and drivers say that being slaves didn’t really hurt them, or that being bought and sold or branded or beaten or robbed of their children didn’t really do them any harm, and so wasn’t wrong or bad, then the slaves or ex-slaves are uniquely placed to contradict this. (If they can speak at all; of course they might be too broken in spirit to have anything to say about their own predicament, or they might have gone Stockholm-syndrome about the terrible injustices that have been done to them.)

There was then—and there is now—a kind of obscene impertinence, a kind of epistemic and political shamelessness,[1] in the spectacle of comfortable affluent whites holding forth to each other about racial oppression, e.g. to deny that it existed (and exists), without giving any kind of hearing or platform to those who were and are actually oppressed; often, indeed, while actively excluding them. Shamelessness is the hallmark of this kind of exclusionary discourse; and sometimes that shamelessness can itself be a serious obstacle to those who are working to redress these kinds of epistemic injustice. As I have written elsewhere:[2]

There is a scene in the fine 2016 film Denial where Deborah Lipstadt and her lawyers are constructing their defense to a libel action brought against her by the Holocaust denier David Irving. To show, against Irving, that there was nothing fake about the Nazis’ mass murders in 1941–5, Lipstadt wants to go into the witness box herself, and she wants Holocaust survivors to testify too. Her lawyers dissuade her. It is not that she and the survivors do not have a convincing story, and one that any decent interlocutor would be ashamed and embarrassed to deny, dispute or question. The point is that Irving will not be convinced—nor ashamed, nor embarrassed—to carry on with an aggressive and skeptical cross-examination of frail and vulnerable old people who, both psychologically and physically, have lived out the rest of their lives in the shadow of the hellish nightmare of Auschwitz.

In Wittgenstein’s famous phrase [Philosophical Investigations I, 257], “see how much stage-setting must already be in place” before a “rational debate” can even begin. See, too, how some of the key stage-setting is ethical. We presuppose certain minimal standards of truth, rationality, and openness to evidence in our interlocutors… it is very difficult to discuss proofs of the reality of anything with people who will not accept the same standards of proof as any reasonable person accepts in any other debate… it is also very difficult to debate with people who do not accept the same standards of shame.  

To my mind, the trouble with a lot of the contemporary “transgender debate” is that it too is shameless. A lot of it consists of cisgender people who are intensely ideologically hostile to the very existence of transgender people, talking to each other about trans people. This happens on social media—of course—and on YouTube; it happens in arts and literary and philosophical festivals; it happens (ad nauseam) in press and parliament; it happens in philosophical journals; it happens in churches and revival meetings; it happens in government-commissioned reviews of health policy. Those who actually are transgender have no effective voice whatever in these discussions, which monotonously and consistently and systematically treat them as objects, obstacles, a problem to be eliminated as soon as possible—or indeed as a threat of some kind, a shadowy “woke mob” full of violent and perverted extremists. And if trans people try to resist this fusillade of demonizing lies, or to gain a voice in such forums, they are cold-shouldered, excluded, denounced for being “biased”, ignored, ridiculed, abused, and quite often actually threatened. All of this, it seems to me, is an abuse of the norms of ethical evidence which is both shameless, and also a terrible shame.

That is why I have written a book—Trans Figured—that aims, among other things, to present its readers with just the sort of firstperson narrative that, I argued above, should have evidential priority in such debates. To what extent will it get a hearing from those who are so intent on silencing the voices of transgender people? Well, epiphanies do happen. I live in hope.


[1] See also my ““Epistemic and political shame”, in Paul Katsafanas, ed., Fanaticism and the history of Philosophy, Routledge 2023. Online draft at (99+) Epistemic and political shame | Sophie grace – Academia.edu.

[2] Sophie Grace Chappell, Trans Figured: on being a transgender person in a cisgender world (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2024), p.35.


Comments are moderated and may take some time to appear. Thanks for your patience.
COMMENTS POLICY

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

16 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin Peterson
14 days ago

”No one should agree that there is a special and mysteriously automatic source of directly-cognized non-inferential moral knowledge called ’intuitions’.”

Why not? W.D. Ross, Robert Audi, and others have a lot of say about the role of intuitions in ethics. They may not accept the strong version of the view mentioned by Grace Chappell, but don’t intuitions deserve a bit more attention in a discussion of evidence in ethics?

ERW
ERW
Reply to  Martin Peterson
14 days ago

You beat me to saying this!

I think it’s fine to flag that you reject this view in a somewhat unrelated article, but it is one of the most prominent accounts of ethical evidence on offer today.

Lance S. Bush
Reply to  ERW
14 days ago

It is definitely prominent, but so is belief in the paranormal. That something is popular says little about its merits. I agree with the article that people should not agree that there is such a mysterious power.

I do think discussion of intuition deserves more attention, but I don’t think any defensible account of mysterious powers would fall out of such an inquiry; I think the end result would be a strong case for skepticism that anyone has such a mysterious faculty.

ERW
ERW
Reply to  Lance S. Bush
14 days ago

A lot of equivocation here. I wouldn’t say “the paranormal” is a common source of evidence for philosophical theories, nor that belief in it common among expert practitioners in our field (to my knowledge). Likewise, without further elaboration, it’s not clear what is meant by “mysteriousness” when it comes to intuitions (causal efficacy?).

There are straightforward epistemic, metaphysical, and phenomenological reasons why truth-tracking intuitions are more plausible than ghosts.

Lance S. Bush
Reply to  ERW
13 days ago

I didn’t say that the paranormal was evidence for philosophical theories. I said it’s a prominent belief. That is, lots of people believe in the paranormal. I didn’t specify which population it was popular among, but I mean people in general. My point is that lots of people believing something is not necessarily good evidence that it’s true. Whether or not any particular group has a relevant form of expertise as a separate question.

I am also a bit puzzled at the claim that there was equivocation. What equivocation are you referring to?

I also didn’t make any claims about the relative plausibilty of truth tracking intuitions and ghosts. Maybe the former are more plausible, but that’s a very low bar since the case for ghosts is so bad. That still leaves open the possibility that truth tracking intuitions are very implausible. I think the situation for intuitions is quite bad.

I definitely do not think that it is straightforward. I have yet to see any clear consensus on what intuitions are or how they work, nor have they been adequately integrated into a well developed account of human cognition. The contemporary notion of a philosophical intuition may be a phantom of the field’s lack of engagement with psychology, and this itself be a kind of intellectual ghost.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Lance S. Bush
11 days ago

Lots of people believing something might not necessarily be good evidence that it’s true, but lots of intelligent and educated people believing something is evidence that it’s true, on many plausible accounts of evidence at least. Your analogy is inapt.

I’m not particularly keen to defend intuitions, but the fact that there’s no clear consensus on what intuitions are or how they work is no more damning to intuitions than the fact that there’s no clear consensus on what science is or how it works is damning to science.

Juan
Juan
14 days ago

Scientism does continue to be a problem, but also confusions concerning what we mean by the concept of evidence in different contexts.

In legal proceedings elaborate rules determine what is “admitted” as evidence regardless of factual validity (scientific or otherwise) based on the purposes and values of the inquiry.

Ethical inquiry may be analogous to trials in this respect.

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
14 days ago

What’s the difference between “being presented with” values, or “being struck” by them and having an intuition of value in the sense being criticized? They sound pretty similar to me. If there’s a difference, it’s that many who talk of intuition are fallibilists about it. They say that what you think is an intuition of truth may not be one: you may be rationalizing or just repeating something common in your community. But talk of being presented “with values” implies a veridical awareness and so suggests a dogmatism that many who talk of intuition rightly avoid.

Geoff
Geoff
Reply to  Tom Hurka
13 days ago

A good question, and I’d be interested to hear Prof. Chappell’s response to this… perhaps it’s in her 2022 book. When I think of having an ‘epiphany’ (or ‘being struck’) it seems to matter more, existentially, than an intuition, but I’m not sure.

Devin
Devin
Reply to  Tom Hurka
9 days ago

I was similarly puzzled. Perhaps the difference is the association of the method of intuitions with thought experiments? But then what about moral revelation through engagement with fiction?

Rollo Burgess
14 days ago

Thanks for this, thoughtful and wise as ever; I will buy and read the book!

Prior to having read it, I do think that there’s a reason (aside from the unhelpful involvement of various trolls and online attention seekers) for why the topic of transgenderism attracts heat. Unlike, say, gay rights – basically just liberalism, let people do what they want if they’re not hurting anyone – certain positions in the ‘transgender debate’ require people to rearrange or replace their mental furniture pretty fundamentally, in an area where our ideas are very central to our lifeworlds (in this case literally imbibed with one’s mother’s milk). Without ascribing this position to Prof. Chappell, I don’t think that the position that everyone should do this, without argument, on the basis of the epistemically privileged claims of transgender people will not fly either on a practical level or philosophically.

None of which in any way justifies being unkind or rude or dismissive; there are surely ways to discuss this without meriting the comparison to David Irving. But I think it’s also worth noting in terms of the bigger point about evidence, that Irving denies publicly observable physical events for which there are huge amounts of data, not limited to testimony of victims (and bystanders, and perpetrators) but documents, photographs, buildings etc.

I am not sure there is much if any similar factual dispute in the case of transgenderism; there is rather a proposed act of conceptual engineering (in the sense of Chalmer’s paper from 2020) and resistance to this proposal – philosophical, political and in popular culture.

Nick
Nick
14 days ago

Thanks for this lovely post, Sophie. Much to chew on…

“…some of the key stage-setting is ethical. We presuppose certain minimal standards of truth, rationality, and openness to evidence in our interlocutors… it is very difficult to discuss proofs of the reality of anything with people who will not accept the same standards of proof as any reasonable person accepts in any other debate.”

The trouble is that these “minimal standards” are themselves the subject of deep ethical contestation. What we call “shamelessness” and “exclusion” our racist targets call wisdom, and there does not appear to be any non-circular way to adjudicate this dispute over epistemic virtue.

By contrast, it seems clear that if a doctor took a plague vaccine back to the 1300s and started curing people en masse, that population would pretty quickly accept that the doctor was working with the correct theory. Maybe not right away, and maybe not to the exclusion of all other competing ideas, but the standards of evidence for medicine appear to be much more stable. Same with agriculture: crop rotation was pretty much bound to catch on; more food and less starvation has a way of convincing people.

So it’s true that a reasonable debate over agricultural productivity cannot be had with someone who doesn’t accept “more food=good”. But reality has a way of forcing that standard on people whether they want to accept it or not. Ethical reality, whatever it is, seems frustratingly unwilling to do the same.

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
14 days ago

Prof. Chappell,

I began reading your essay (‘Epistemic and Political Shame’), and the importance of the observations of Raimond Gaita you included at the outset cannot be overstated. Paraphrasing- one must be in touch with reality to employ reason, one does not use reason to become more in touch with reality. As a clinical psychologist, I couldn’t agree more.

A person can be wildly delusional, and at the same time employ elements of logic in formulating the putative rationale for their delusions (‘Since the CoVid pandemic was an elaborate hoax, used as a pretext to subjugate the entire population of the planet, then it follows that vaccines are part of that vast conspiracy, and it is evident the only purpose of the vaccine is to implant a 5G chip with which to track my movements’).

Such statements (met with approval by tens of thousands of ordinary Americans) require little scrutiny to be recognized as paranoid gibberish. But to the person expressing this paranoid gibberish, it all makes sense, and hangs together within a broader worldview. In the world composed of brute facts, such views demonstrably caused the deaths of thousands.

Here I’ll quote one of your propositions-

Our criticism is that the criticisee could have done better, and presupposes recognition-respect. For it presupposes that we her critics have the standing to criticise her for this failure; in virtue of our shared and equal status as epistemic agents, she is—at least in principle—answerable to us for that failure

The crux of this, in my view: ‘we her critics have the standing to criticise her for this failure’.

Just so.

The subset of the general population that stands on and with the ground of empirical reality is justified, and I would suggest obligated, to lodge criticisms of any who cause widespread harm by espousing paranoid gibberish.

Such criticisms, however, are not for the ears of those who espouse paranoid gibberish, as they will hear none of it. Instead, our exhortations to live a reality based life, and from this to exercise reason and moral judgment effectively, are for any who are hesitant to explicitly criticize paranoid gibberish, reluctant to plainly state paranoid gibberish has no place in public discourse, let alone public policy.

Granting paranoid gibberish even a modicum of legitimacy (‘just another viewpoint’) gets people killed. The granting of legitimacy to all manner of absurdities and patently false beliefs, in the name of the supposed virtue of allowing all notions to participate in ‘the marketplace of ideas’ has only resulted in more suffering and death, and done nothing to advance greater human understanding, enhanced well-being, or guarantee the rights of all.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped entertaining nonsense.

Best regards,

IDR

akreider
akreider
14 days ago

Thanks for this, and I look forward the book.

One of the many pitfalls with the weighing of such evidence is when there are competing harm claims – as with debates about whether trans women should be permitted full participation at some levels of women’s sports. After the narratives have been sorted through, what is to be done? I’m inclined to think we need to appeal to general abstract moral principles, beyond, “Don’t harm”.

Another worry is what to do with the ceteris paribus qualifier. When is the presumed epistemic privilege overridden by other factors? Justifications like the ignoring of slaves’ narratives because they are (supposedly) suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or of the downgrading of the reported experience of very young trans kids because they are kids could easily be motivated by a desire to put forward a narrative of one’s own – just as the default acceptance of such claims might be.

Joshua Knobe
13 days ago

Surely, more than one type of thing can serve as evidence in ethics. Thus, the claim that one type of thing can serve as evidence in ethics should not generally be understood to entail that no other type of thing can serve as evidence.

In her remarks on experimental philosophy in this post, it sounds as though Sophie Grace Chappell is seeing as experimental philosophy as opposed to her own favored approach, but I don’t think that this is the right way to see it. The idea behind experimental philosophy research in ethics is that facts about how people think and feel can be evidence in ethics, but the claim that facts about how people think and feel can be evidence *does not* entail that nothing else can be evidence.

Sophie Grace G Chappell
Sophie Grace G Chappell
Reply to  Joshua Knobe
13 days ago

“We have then a wide variety of types of evidence in ethics, and simple-minded science-envying prejudice should not be allowed to blind us to that variety, or to rob us of the epistemic opportunities that this variety creates for us.”