Doctoral thesis

Ordinary ethical navigation : an account of moral understanding


  • Fribourg, Suisse, 2022

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Thèse: Université de Fribourg (Suisse), 2022

English This dissertation defends an account of moral understanding as the competence to navigate ethical life. The nature of moral understanding is an object of controversy. Some claim that it can be reduced to a form of moral knowledge. Others claim that moral understanding is a complex moral epistemic good that cannot be reduced to a form of moral knowledge. I argue that this dispute dissolves once we acknowledge that the debate about the nature of moral understanding is one about the kind of epistemic competence a moral agent should develop and exercise. Against the view that moral understanding is an explanatory competence and the view that it is the capacity to gain moral knowledge, I argue that moral understanding is the competence to navigate ethical life. Through this navigation, one forms moral beliefs that speak
to one’s agency, such that one successfully figures out what one should do. This competence is characterized by the abilities to be epistemically engaged with humility and to appreciate moral reason. Humble epistemic engagement is primarily guided by an attentional activity—moral attention—deemed the proper mark of the active moral agent by Iris Murdoch. Appreciation follows from normative experience resulting from the emotional experience of the subject. As a result, moral understanding is a necessary, although not sufficient, constituent of moral competence. This account aligns with the intuitions whereby moral understanding is something one should possess oneself—it should not be outsourced—whilst accepting help from peers. It also accommodates the fundamental intuitions that this moral epistemic good
implies a systematic grasp of morality and the ability to figure out what one should do. I
distinguish, moreover, between two significantly different deficits of moral understanding. Ordinary lack of moral understanding is in cases in which one’s navigation is compromised by one’s lack of epistemic engagement. Failed moral agency is in cases where one does not navigate to live well. Only the former deficit can be remedied. Explaining why ordinary ethical navigation fails, in turn, sheds light on the puzzling reality that people, although active and well-intentioned, are often ill-equipped to find their way in ethical life. Becoming clearer on the nature of moral understanding reveals that moral competence involves as much epistemic as practical engagement. The account also provides a novel set of conceptual tools for thinking about the way ordinary moral experience influences moral understanding.
Faculté des lettres et des sciences humaines
  • English
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