Epistemic modesty in ethics
Published online: 22 May 2017
Ó Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017
Abstract Many prominent ethicists, including Shelly Kagan, John Rawls, and Thomas
Scanlon, accept a kind of epistemic modesty thesis concerning our capacity to carry out
the project of ethical theorizing. But it is a thesis that has received surprisingly little
explicit and focused attention, despite its widespread acceptance. After explaining why
the thesis is true, I argue that it has several implications in metaethics, including, espe-
cially, implications that should lead us to rethink our understanding of Reductive Real-
ism. In particular, the thesis of epistemic modesty in ethics implies a kind of epistemic
modesty about the metaphysical nature of ethics, if Reductive Realism about the meta-
physical nature of ethics is true, and it implies that normative concepts are indispensable
to practical deliberation in a way that answers an inﬂuential objection to Reductive
Realism from Jonathan Dancy, David Enoch, William FitzPatrick, and Derek Parﬁt.
Keywords Normative ethics Á Metaethics Á Metaphilosophy Á Normative Concepts Á
Reductive Realism Á Robust Realism
‘‘Working out the terms of moral justiﬁcation is an unending task’’.
Thomas Scanlon (1998: 361)
‘‘ …the process of evaluation and justiﬁcation [of theories in ethics]
can perhaps never be completely ﬁnished’’.
Shelly Kagan (1998: 16)
‘‘Taking [ethical theorizing] to the limit, one seeks the conception, or plurality of
conceptions, that would survive the rational consideration of all feasible conceptions
and all rational arguments for them. We cannot,
of course, actually do this…’’ .
John Rawls (1974: 289)
& Nicholas Laskowski
r Philosophie, Universita
t Duisburg-Essen, Universita
Essen, Nordrhein-Westfalen 45117, Germany
Philos Stud (2018) 175:1577–1596