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Robert Audi believes that we can literally perceive justice, or injustice, just as we can see the beauty of a sunset or hear the anger in someone's voice. For instance, if I know that a student paper clearly deserves an "A" (since I have read it myself) but I witness a colleague mark it a "B", then -- ceteris paribus -- I can see the injustice of my colleague's conduct. To be clear, Audi is not merely claiming that we can perceive the properties upon which the justice or injustice of someone's actions is based -- i.e. my colleague's marking the paper with a lower grade than it deserves -- but that we can perceive the injustice itself of my colleague's deed.
Audi recognizes that "[M]any people, in and outside of philosophy, ... take[...] descriptive [or, factual] propositions to exhaust what is perceptually knowable ...." (p. 8) And, while Audi maintains that "[S]ome reason [exists] to take literally discourse that represents moral properties ... as perceptible" (p. 32), he does not directly confront skeptics who refuse to take such discourse literally and who, correspondingly, reject the possibility of moral perception. Rather, in the book under review -- originally, a series of lectures delivered at Soochow University -- Audi responds indirectly by trying to give an account of moral perception that is both plausible in itself and more plausible than the skeptics' alternative.
Audi begins by stressing that "[W]e should not expect moral perception to be like ... perceiving everyday visible objects ..." because he allows that "... moral properties are not ... observable, in what seems the most elementary way ...." (p. 33) Instead, on Audi's view, "[T]he moral perception of injustice is ... seeing properties on which injustice is consequential [or, based] in a way that makes [the injustice] obvious ...." (p. 35, emphasis added) In other words, moral properties such as injustice are not free-floating (or 'brute') but tied to, or based on, (non-moral) descriptive properties and we perceive moral properties only by, or through, perceiving their corresponding base properties.
However, for Audi to allow that we do not perceive moral properties like we do common visible objects because moral properties are not observable in the same basic way as are size, shape, and color can seem problematic. For someone might object: 'You say "Moral properties are perceivable", but it seems ad hoc to defend this claim with an extended notion of "observation" and a special way of "seeing" that is supposed to make moral properties obvious. For moral perception to be plausible, we must perceive moral properties in the same general way that we perceive other, non-moral properties, not sui generis.'
But this objection is misplaced. On Audi's view, the thought process that moral perception involves -- perceiving the base properties of some higher-level property in a way that makes the presence of the higher-level property obvious -- is ubiquitous. Think, for example, of all that we can read off of a person's facial expression, tone of voice, and/or body language: fear, confidence, frustration, joy, boredom, rage, excitement, annoyance, nonchalance, melancholy -- to name a few. The same general way we recognize a higher-level property such as melancholy in underlying properties such as facial expression and body language is how we perceive both moral properties and an indefinite number of other higher-level, non-moral properties. As Audi emphasizes, "I see no good reason not to speak of moral perception if we can speak of facial perception and perception of anger." (p. 59) Or, in other words, moral perception for Audi is not sui generis. And, thus, Audi's claim that we can perceive moral properties seems as plausible as the uncontroversial idea that we perceive all sorts of other higher-level properties.
But Audi also claims that taking moral perception seriously (and literally) has an advantage over skepticism. Most importantly, for Audi, moral perception provides a basis for (and thereby helps makes sense of) ethical agreement because the properties upon which moral perception is based are publicly accessible. (p. 50) That is, while it is unclear how skeptics about moral perception can explain ethical agreement -- why should there be any agreement about morality if there is nothing in common to which our moral "perceptions" are a response? -- Audi can appeal to the base properties upon which a moral property depends and explain ethical agreement in terms of the same, or similar, responses by moral perceivers to the same base properties.
Unfortunately for Audi -- and in contrast to skeptics -- his problem is not with agreement but disagreement. For if Audi is correct and we perceive moral properties as he says (that is, through our perception of the publicly accessible, non-moral properties upon which moral properties are based), then why should there be any ethical disagreement at all, let alone as much as we actually find?
Audi's effort to address his problem with disagreement focuses on the idea of epistemic peers. On his view, only when epistemic peers disagree is ethical objectivity threatened, and Audi insists that disagreement among epistemic peers is rare if it exists at all. For one thing, the standards for epistemic parity are demanding. Peers are both "(a) equally rational and equally thoughtful and (b) have considered the same relevant evidence equally conscientiously." (p. 76) But Audi goes further, claiming that, "[I]t is very hard to be justified in believing that someone else satisfies (a) or (b) or, especially, both" and, therefore, "[W]e may be at most rarely justified in believing anyone to be an epistemic peer on a given point at issue ... especially ... complex moral issues." (pp. 77-78)
Though Audi distinguishes between a variety of different aspects, and kinds, of disagreement, his effort to winnow down to the vanishing point the kind of moral disagreement that threatens ethical objectivity is unconvincing. No doubt, Audi is correct that some, perhaps many, ethical disagreements do not occur among epistemic peers, but surely some do. Failure to concede the latter point evinces a solipsistic dogmatism. Thus, when Audi says things like:
[S]omeone else's disbelieving p is itself a reason, for a person who rationally believes p, to doubt that the other is correct in denying p or is a full-scale epistemic peer in the matter. (p. 79)
Other things equal ... we are better justified in our assessment of our own basis for believing p and of our response to that basis than in our assessment of the basis of anyone else's believing it or of anyone else's response to that basis. (p. 80)
[T]he very exercise of critically seeking to establish the epistemic parity of a disputant may give one a justificatory advantage in the dispute.... Other things equal, making a rational conscientious attempt to establish the epistemic parity of a disputant tends to favor the conscientious inquirer, at least where one retains a disputed belief. (p. 80)
Audi appears to have succumbed to such dogmatism.
Despite his lack of a fully satisfying response to the problem of disagreement -- something that Audi is by no means alone in failing to provide -- the balance of his book proves quite interesting as he explores how moral perception relates to intuition, aesthetic perception, and emotion. On one hand, Audi claims that moral perception and intuition are both "direct responses to something the person sees or otherwise senses or considers ..." and "the complexity of the object, pattern, or even narrative ... does not imply that [such responses] are inferential." (p. 93) In other words, Audi rejects 'intellectualism' -- the view that all rational thought is inferential -- and takes both moral perception and intuition to be forms of rational thought in which we directly see, or otherwise sense, some object or proposition in a more-or-less complicated pattern. On the other hand, the complexity of the underlying pattern in which we either immediately perceive or intuit some higher-order property supports Audi's rejection of "a common stereotype of intuition ... as a 'gut reaction' ... not mediated by reflection ..." (p. 83) Aesthetic perception offers further support for Audi's view of intuition as non-inferential yet still rational. In the complex arrangement of light, color, and figure, one can -- with education and time for reflection -- distinguish an old master from a knock-off and genuine beauty from kitsch.
Audi errs, however, in taking moral perception and intuition to have authority on all moral questions and, in many cases, to be able to resolve moral disagreements on their own. But this expects too much from moral perception and intuition. Arguably, moral perceptions and moral intuitions are only authoritative about those basic, uncontroversial moral truths that we all know to the extent we are minimally competent moral thinkers. And, of course, these basic, uncontroversial truths that we can regard moral perception and intuition as revealing do not represent answers to all moral questions. But, taken together, these truths do constitute a shared framework within which minimally competent moral thinkers can address all genuine moral questions, including highly disputed ones, and resolve moral disagreements as much as anyone could ever reasonably expect. Expecting moral perception and intuition to do more than this is expecting too much.
Apart from Audi's excessive exuberance for using moral perception and intuition to resolve moral disagreement, however, his analysis and discussion of how moral perception and intuition can be both rational yet non-inferential is a helpful and welcome addition to his already substantial work in epistemology.
© 2014 James Taggart
James Taggart received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Brown University in 2009. He now lives in Maryland and teaches at Washington College.