Ethical Phenomenology and Metaethics

Kirchin, Simon
September 2003
Ethical Theory & Moral Practice;Sep2003, Vol. 6 Issue 3, p241
Academic Journal
In recent times, comments have been made and arguments advanced in support of metaethical positions based on the ‘phenomenology’ of ethical experience – in other words, the ‘feel’ that accompanies our ethical experiences. In this paper I cast doubt on whether ethical phenomenology supports metaethical positions to any great extent and try to tease out what is involved in giving a ‘phenomenological argument’. I consider three such positions: ‘independent’ moral realism (IMR), another type of moral realism – sensibility theory – and noncognitivism. Phenomenological arguments have been used in support of the first two positions, but my general claim is that ethical phenomenology supports no metaethical position over any other. I discuss two types of phenomenological argument that might be offered in support of different types of moral realism, although I couch my debate in terms of IMR. The first argument asserts that ethical properties are not experienced in the way that rivals to IMR say we experience them. Against this I claim that it is odd to think that one could experience ethical properties as any metaethical theory characterizes them. The second argument is more complicated: the general thought is that an adequate metaethical theory should not distort our ethical experience unduly. I consider one aspect of our ethical experience – that there is some ‘ethical authority’ to which our judgements answer – in order to illustrate this idea. I discuss why IMRealists might think that this phenomenon supports their position. Against them I claim that other metaethical positions might be able to accommodate the phenomenon of ethical authority. Even if they cannot, then, secondly, I argue that there are other aspects of our ethical experience that sit more naturally with other metaethical positions. Hence, one cannot argue that ethical phenomenology as a whole supports one theory over any others.


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