Moral Seriousness and Ethical Contextualism – The writing sample

This is the writing sample I sent graduate schools; it is full of philosophy jargon that may make it a difficult read for many.  But I just put it out there, because it is something I wrote.

1. Introduction

One way to evaluate a metaethical view is to determine how it accommodates beliefs we have about the world. On the one hand we want our moral theory to be compatible with the extremely successful naturalistic ontology that is the dominant view of the objective world; however, it is also hard to deny that we have moral experiences of a certain sort that oftentimes seem to contradict naturalism. Mark Timmons in Morality without Foundations and Timmons with Terry Horgan in a number of later articles have proposed a metaethical theory that aims to satisfy both of these pressures. This view has changed names several times through the years but I will call it ‘ethical contextualism’, as this is how Timmons refers to it in Morality without Foundations, which most of this analysis is based upon. In this paper, I will not contest whether ethical contextualism is satisfactorily compatible with naturalism; as an irrealist view, it easily accommodates this. I also will not deny that the view properly accommodates moral experience as Timmons and Horgan have characterized it. However, in section 3, I contend that Timmons and Horgan do not properly address one important aspect of our moral experience; they fail to address our experience of taking morality seriously. This makes their view vulnerable to a plausibility argument that I present. Then, in section 4, I show that their explanation of moral seriousness does not coincide with our common conception of it. In section 5, I further demonstrate that Timmons and Horgan cannot simply jettison moral seriousness from their view without also conflicting with the prevalent notion that we can change our moral context in a reasoned manner. Finally, in section 6, I assert that ethical contextualism can only be made plausible if its proponents provide a detailed description of moral seriousness that is consistent with irrealism and also show how this affects the role of morality in our lives.


2. An overview of ethical contextualism

The version of ethical contextualism that Timmons and Horgan propose is entirely irrealist; it asserts that there are no moral properties and therefore moral statements are not descriptive. This can be contrasted with moral realism, which views moral statements as descriptions of properties in the objective world. Under moral realism, matters-of-fact in the world somehow set the truth-value of a moral statement. However, under moral irrealism the source of moral truth is not so easily explained because there are no direct ‘truth makers’ in the world. Some irrealists attempt to overcome this by reducing moral statements to non-normative descriptive ones. For instance, a statement such as “Abortion is wrong” may be reduced to something about the psychological state of the speaker (“I believe abortion is wrong”). However, along with this reduction comes an elimination of many of the features of moral experience that we take for granted. For example, moral statements have certain surface features that allow us to reason logically with them. If I say “Abortion is permissible” and my friend says “Abortion is impermissible,” typically we think of these as being two answers to the same question. We also think that they are contradictory because they are translated into the logical form of ‘A’ and ‘~A’ respectively. Under a reductive account, this is not the case; the statements are translated into “P1 thinks A” and “P2 thinks ~A,” and these two statements are not contradictory. At least on face value, this seems to change the standard way we experience our moral language. Timmons’s solution is non-descriptive and non-reductive, so moral statements are not transformed at all. Instead, the truth-value of a moral statement is set by its correct assertibility within a moral context. Notice that this is a rather radical solution, as it means that no aspect of a moral statement’s truth-value is set by the world. However, this has the potential to accommodate both our moral experience and naturalism. This gives ethical contextualism an advantage over standard realist and irrealist views that tend to only accommodate one or the other.

Under Timmons’s view, described in Morality without Foundations, the basic element of the moral world is the context. A moral context is the set of moral beliefs that we hold, some of which are more important in our moral reasoning than others. Timmons asserts that much of our moral reasoning is done from a morally ‘engaged’ perspective. This means that we are thinking and acting morally using the context as our basis and justification for moral truth. This process need not even be conscious for us; this is demonstrated by the direct nature that many of our moral perceptions and acts possess. For example, if you see a person being beaten in the street, it seems as if you see the wrongness of that situation directly; you do not need to contemplate the physical properties of the event in order to conclude that the action is wrong. Given your moral context, the normative properties of the act come automatically from the physical properties.

Furthermore, we are least aware of those moral beliefs that form the basic structure of our moral world. In a coherent moral network, all the other moral principles will be based upon these base principles. For example, there may be an individual who reasons morally from within context ‘A’ and another who does so in context ‘B’; imagine that ‘A’ has a hedonistic basic moral principle whereas ‘B’ has a basic principle that centers around the sanctity of human life. According to Timmons, all other moral principles need to be justified by these basic moral principles. So, in A it would likely be justified to kill an infant with a degenerative illness if his/her life will be one filled with constant pain, whereas this probably would not be justified in context B. Moral justification within a context works in this fashion: less basic moral principles receive their justification from the basic principles that characterize a moral context, though those basic moral principles do not require any sort of objective justification from facts outside of the context. Timmons contends that it is through this method of moral justification that moral statements within a context can have truth-values. This means that for moral statements reflecting derived (non-basic) principles, moral experience and practice can function just as if there were objective moral facts.


3. The argument from moral seriousness

The first part of my argument relies on what Timmons proposes is an advantage of ethical contextualism; to use his words, it “comport(s) with deeply embedded presumptions of ordinary moral discourse and practice” (Timmons 1999, 12). He further describes what he has in mind by giving several categories of discourse and practice. In summarized form, they are as follows (p. 159):


  1. There is a general form of our moral language. For instance, we oftentimes use logical constructions in moral language, refer to moral properties, and assert moral statements as if they are genuine.

  2. There is a certain moral phenomenology, so that we seem to experience moral facts as if they are in the world itself.

  3. There are ‘critical practices’ in morality; some moral statements seem genuinely true, and we feel as though moral progress is possible. Furthermore, there also seem to be genuine moral disagreements between moral agents.

  4. Moral discourse is oftentimes reason guided.


Timmons spends a great deal of time showing that a contextual irrealist view can accommodate all of these aspects of moral experience. I will not contest that he succeeds on this point. However, I wish to propose another aspect that I think Timmons has missed:

5.    When we carefully analyze our moral beliefs, we do not consider an (epistemologically) arbitrary basis for those beliefs to be acceptable.

This is another way of saying that we take our ethical views seriously. Note that this new feature is quite different from ones already mentioned by Timmons1, but it only becomes apparent when we do a more stringent analysis of our ethical beliefs. Features 1- 4 occur from a morally engaged perspective, which means that they are experienced when one reasons and acts morally from within a moral context. Even #4 is only possible from within a moral context; moral beliefs can only be justified by their agreement with base principles of the moral context. Because we do not normally concern ourselves with these principles, this sort of justification is typically adequate. This is obviously true when we make moral assessments in real time, such as when we see someone being beaten; the situation simply does not allow for a more time-consuming analysis. However, even when we are not confronted with an immediate moral situation, we still reason from within a certain context. When one asks whether abortion is wrong, typically the dialectic involves the competing moral prohibitions on killing and restrictions on autonomy. We rarely ask whether killing or autonomy are important morally themselves; the contexts in which we all morally reason already assume that they are. Timmons himself gives a good example of how moral reasoning is typically restricted to within the context (pp. 220-221). He describes a committee he was once a member of that was tasked with formulating an honor code for the university. The committee members needed to come to a consensus in a reasonable amount of time and produce a code that would be consistent with the general sensibilities of the university. Timmons argues that in order to accomplish this they needed to operate within the same (or at least a similar) moral context. Therefore, if a skeptic should appear in such a situation declaring that we have no good reasons to think that plagiarism is wrong, his sentiments are seen as a waste of time. He is questioning the context in which the discussion takes place and, according to Timmons’ irrealism, this means that nothing can be said to contradict him.

Timmons describes how the committee in his example did not take the skeptic seriously and the conversation was quickly moved away from the skeptic’s worries. I think this is a common reaction to such a moral detachment; there is very little one can say to someone who simply denies basic premises of one’s moral outlook. For example, even something as basic as, “it is good for a human to prosper (if nothing else will be harmed” can be denied by a stubborn skeptic. We will probably stop taking them seriously, but still the skepticism stands. Timmons can explain this fact quite sensibly; we cannot justify the moral context itself because outside it there simply are no moral truths. Under his view, moral language does not even make sense without a context. Thus, the statement “My moral context is true and moral context B is not true” is simply improperly asserted. His moral irrealism posits that there are no moral truth makers in the objective world, and his contextualism states that outside of a context we can’t even make moral claims. Therefore, there is nothing else to say about these extra-contextual moral assertions.

Regardless of Timmons’ difficulty in accommodating it, #5 seems like a very compelling statement. Any successful moral theory should be able to supply the skeptic with an answer to the question of why we hold certain beliefs. It seems that when we look at our moral context from a detached perspective, we seek to make our beliefs non-arbitrary in an epistemic sense because it is not enough that our context is merely internally consistent. This is why we typically take moral truth seriously, just as we take truth about the world seriously. I will argue that because #5 is a compelling feature of moral experience, then any view that can accommodate it is more compelling than one that cannot if all other aspects of the views are equal. Furthermore, a realist version of contextualism could be this competing view; as Timmons describes it, realist contextualism does not differ from the irrealist version in how it explains the surface features of our within-context moral discourse (Timmons 1999, 124-125). However, it posits that our moral semantic norms conspire with the facts in the world to yield correct assertibility of moral statements. This means that, unlike irrealism, basic moral principles have objective justification outside of a given context; they are justified by the fact that they describe moral properties in the world. In this way, contextual realism is able to accommodate #5. With this dichotomy in mind, what I call ‘The argument from moral seriousness’ follows:


P1) If metaethical view V1 does not accommodate an aspect M of our moral experience that view V2 does, then (all other things being equal)2 V2 is more plausible than V1.


P2) Irrealist contextualism does not accommodate #5.


P3) Realist contextualism does accommodate #5.


P4) #5 is an aspect of our moral experience.


C) Realist contextualism (all other things being equal) is more plausible than irrealist contextualism.


P1 seems apparent; if we do not have to make any sacrifices, then accommodating an aspect of our moral experience is desirable. P2, P3, and P4 simply follow from my treatment of these topics above; at least on the face of it, they seem true. Timmons characterizes his contextualist view as one that can accommodate our moral experience even while being irrealist; however, if this argument succeeds then irrealist contextualism does not seem to be the optimum solution that Timmons takes it to be. In the next section I present a response to this sort of argument that Horgan and Timmons have already suggested.


4. An irrealist response to the argument from moral seriousness:

In a recent article, Horgan and Timmons preempt the issue of moral seriousness. They give the following suggestion (emphasis is theirs):


…we think that the sort of challenge being posed is best construed as a moral challenge: why ought people to take their moral views seriously? And the appropriate response is to give moral reasons – reasons that, for instance, will likely appeal to the important role that morality plays in people’s lives. Such moral reasons are not hard to find. And here again, our understanding of the challenge is to take it as appropriately dealt with from within an engaged moral outlook. (Horgan and Timmons 2006a, 287)


They see the problem of moral seriousness as just another moral question that can be treated from within the moral context. For instance, if we have a base principle under which psychological well-being is valued, it would be considered good to take morality seriously if it has psychological benefits. Thus, they assert that psychologically pragmatic reasons are sufficient to fulfill the requirement for moral seriousness if those types of goals are valued within the moral context. This directly attacks P2 of my argument from moral seriousness. However, Horgan and Timmons can only claim this because they interpret ‘arbitrary’ from #5 (in section 3) to include both epistemic and pragmatic arbitrariness.

I do not believe that the need for moral seriousness expressed in #5 can be satisfied by an appeal to pragmatic reasons to take morality seriously. I contend that the natural interpretation of ‘arbitrary’ in this case should be epistemic and not pragmatic. To clarify how the ambiguity of ‘arbitrary’ can cause us to have different interpretations of #5, let us consider the following question:

Why should I believe that I will survive my illness?

I take this sentence to be similar to the question we ask about moral seriousness, and there are at least two interpretations3. The first is a pragmatic interpretation:

P: In what way is it helpful to my health for me to believe that I will survive my illness?

There may be good psychological and physical effects from my belief that I will survive, even though my actual survival may be unlikely. This is how Horgan and Timmons interpret moral seriousness; regardless of the lack of epistemic reasons for me to take my moral beliefs seriously, it is advantageous for me to do so because of the important role morality plays in my life. The other interpretation is an epistemic one:

E: What good evidence is there for me to believe that I will survive my illness?

This is entirely based on the likelihood that ‘I will survive’ is true. We may look at medical tests and then use past outcomes to make a prediction of survival. In the medical situation either P or E seems acceptable. However, I do not see the same ambiguity in our intuitions about moral seriousness. It seems rather clear that an interpretation like E is closer to what we ask when we question whether we should take morality seriously. Intuitively, the pragmatic effects of not taking morality seriously may be a concern, but our primary concern is epistemic in nature.

Although the preference for the epistemic view of moral seriousness is based upon one’s intuition, an example of a contextual system that exhibits pragmatic seriousness without epistemic seriousness should bolster this. The fact that in the United States we drive on the right side of the road is a perfect example of mere convention with a great deal of practical seriousness. It is extremely beneficial for someone to obey this convention when in the United States; in fact, it is so serious that disobeying this rule could lead to a very early death. If we had never known about the way motorists drive in England, we might even be tempted to think that we somehow have epistemologically objective reasons to drive on the right side. However, even though we have very good practical reasons to obey the applicable traffic laws when we are in a certain country, we realize that there is not reason to think that one side of the road is more appropriate for driving than the other. ‘Side of driving’ is in some way a base principle because other aspects of our driving context (which side the steering wheel is on or the way the signs are facing) are based upon it. It seems implausible that morality works in this pragmatic way. In fact, this example suggests that if moral seriousness is merely a practical matter then moral contexts are not very different from conventions. It is unlikely Timmons and Horgan want to claim this4; therefore, their argument against P2 fails.


5. Context switching:

I also foresee an argument against P4. Horgan and Timmons may make the claim that moral feature #5 (moral seriousness) from above, unlike like features #1-4, is not a vital aspect of our moral experience. This is, of course, a matter of intuition. However, in order to overcome this assertion I will offer a concrete example of a moral activity that only seems possible if there is moral seriousness as I have described it. If Horgan and Timmons want to jettison #5 from the list of moral experience types, then they will also have to claim that reasoned moral context switching never occurs; this will make their objection implausible to most.

It seems apparent that there are cases in which one switches moral contexts. This means that the base principles that guide moral reasoning and action are changed and, consequently, the set of moral statements that are correctly assertible also changes. Within pragmatic contexts, such as the traffic example I use above, swapping contexts is a rather simple matter. Of course, it may actually be difficult to ‘learn’ a new context (we can imagine the difficulty that the typical American driver experiences when in the UK for the first time), but the goal of switching contexts is easily chosen. We see that, for the sake of some other valued goal, it is advantageous for us to switch from our current context to another and this is reason enough to do so.

I do not think this is what happens when we think about switching our moral context. When we switch our moral context, it is most natural for us to do so because we have reason to think that our current context is wrong in an epistemic sense. There may be pragmatic reasons for changing the outward behavior associated with morality; we, for example, may find ourselves isolated in a conservative atmosphere by our declarations that there is nothing wrong with promiscuous behavior. However, this is merely a change of a behavioral context. It is far rarer for us to take pragmatic reasons into consideration when we switch our moral context itself. We are more likely to hide our moral feelings in order to conform to our societal context without making any change to our moral context. I find it uncontroversial that people sometimes take themselves to change their moral context for epistemologically non-arbitrary reasons. This is only possible if there are epistemologically non-arbitrary bases to our moral contexts in the first place, and this is exactly what #5 states. Therefore, the irrealist will have to attack context switching in order to show that #5 is not an aspect of our moral experience.

I only see one option open to Horgan and Timmons at this point; they must simply bite the bullet and continue to deny P4. However, because the possibility of context switching follows from moral seriousness, they must deny that context switching (as we normally conceive of it) exists as well. This amounts to a reduction of reasons for context switching to non-epistemic ones. If we are willing to put aside the immediate intuitions we may have against such a reduction, this view does have some appeal. It may be the case that most of the shifts in moral belief can be accounted for by evoking our ability, under the contextualist view, of changing higher-order beliefs while maintaining base beliefs. When someone makes a radical, and supposedly well reasoned, change of many moral beliefs (such as through religious conversion) it is not apparent that the person’s base beliefs, that define the context, have changed. For example, one may have ascribed to the base moral principle, “It is good to do whatever God wills” before the conversion; thus, even a radical conversion may only represent the formation of new higher-level moral beliefs based upon changing beliefs about the world (mainly God’s will). Given that most of our base beliefs are non-salient in everyday ethical thinking, it is quite conceivable that we could mistake a higher-order belief for a base belief. Consequently, many of the cases that we think represent true context switching may only represent dramatic changes in higher-order beliefs. If most dramatic moral change is like this, then context switching may be only a minor problem for the irrealist. Furthermore, true context switching may not be guided by reason. People may switch contexts because of emotional or psychological pressures and not because of the sort of justifiable reasons used when within the context. This would be a reduction of our seemingly epistemic reasons for context switching to objective ones.


6. Conclusion

If Horgan and Timmons reduce moral seriousness and context switching, as I believe they must in order to make their view plausible, then this would have a dramatic effect on one’s attitude toward morality. For example, we are typically committed to our moral principles, and this is derived from the fact that we take morality epistemologically seriously. When we are involved in a serious disagreement, we believe that we are arguing for what is true and that our opponent is arguing for something that is false. When this epistemic justification is not present (if, for instance, I am arguing that the American driving context is superior to that of the British) the seriousness with which one takes the argument decreases dramatically. Horgan and Timmons do not think that this must be the case; they claim that the usefulness of moral commitment and seriousness gives us enough reason to think that we should take morality seriously just as if we had epistemic justification. I clarified the prominent intuition about this enough in section 4 to show that epistemic moral seriousness is a prerequisite for us to have an attitude of seriousness toward our moral beliefs. Therefore, I do not see how one could naturally take moral commitments seriously as Horgan and Timmons desire; we may wish to take morality seriously, but we simply will not if the proper epistemic justification is absent. This means that, under their view, there is no reason to have more commitment to our moral context than to our country’s context of traffic rules. Whether it is desirable or not to take moral claims seriously, it follows from irrealist contextualism that we have no adequate reasons to treat them so.

Although the loss of moral seriousness may seem to make irrealist contextualism automatically implausible, I do not think that this is the case. Rather, it is important to weigh this loss against the advantage that an irrealist view has of easily accommodating naturalism. It may be helpful to look toward philosophy of mind where this strategy has been implemented with some success. For example, it is commonplace for mental properties to be reduced to natural properties in order to maintain compatibility with naturalism. Oftentimes this results in the falsification of common sense notions about the mind; however, such a reductionist theory is typically thought of as plausible. I don’t see any reason why this basic idea cannot apply to metaethics as well. If naturalism is important enough to accommodate, and realist metaethical theories do not accomplish this5 then, rather than giving up naturalism, it may be worth reconsidering some of our common sense ideas about moral experience. With this in mind, it is rather simple to re-characterize the act of moral context switching and the attitude of moral seriousness in ways compatible with irrealism. Horgan and Timmons could say that people change contexts and take contexts seriously because of psychological and sociological matters-of -fact. This means that moral facts in the world do not inform us about the moral context we should adopt, but rather natural properties explain which ones we do adopt. Notice that the latter claim is causal and not normative. For example, for someone living in a puritanical society, the properties of the society and the individual’s relation to them are both natural properties that explain the persons view towards an act labeled ‘immoral’ by that society. This does not mean that a society alone sets moral contexts (a person may, in fact, react against the wishes of a society), but only that the natural matters-of-fact in the world do so.

The difficult task for Horgan and Timmons is to address how their view alters the basic way we view moral reality. The fact that moral contexts are held and adopted for epistemologically arbitrary reasons may make some fear that irrealism will lead to moral nihilism. Timmons and Horgan briefly address this fear (Horgan & Timmons, 2006b) but their response is merely an echo of the quote in section 4; they think that moral seriousness can be addressed from within the moral context. I think that this reply misses the essence of the fear; the lack of epistemological moral seriousness is a problem because it puts into question the role of morality in our lives. Typically, we relate to moral values as we do to natural facts; we ask what is right and wrong just as we ask what is true or false. Irrealism invalidates this way of relating to morality, but proponents of irrealist contextualism have not made a substantial enough effort to replace this common sense notion with something more compatible with their view. It is true that irrealist contextualism explains our moral life when we reason from within a moral context, but this is not enough. There needs to be a more complete explanation of what happens when we reason from a detached perspective. Although I remain hopeful that such an analysis can be completed in the future, irrealist contextualism does not currently offer this explanation and therefore remains inadequate.




Gibbard, Allan. 1992. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Horgan, Terry, and Mark Timmons. 2006a. Cognitivist Expressivism. In Metaethics After Moore, ed. Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons, 255-298. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—- —- 2006b. Expressivism, Yes! Relativism, No! In Oxford Studies in Metaethics, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, 73-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Timmons, Mark. 1999. Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1Timmons does mention moral seriousness in Morality without Foundations (170) but the scope of what this means is different for him than for myself. He is only concerned with how moral beliefs appear to be important to us; he states that because of this importance, we are unlikely to accept the moral views of others even if they also have internally consistent moral systems. I think that #5, as I describe it above, also leads to us taking morality seriously in the manner Timmons mentions. However, my version gives a reason for why morality is important to us and therefore it seems more basic than Timmons’ view.

2Given that many arguments for irrealism concentrate on the implausibility of realism, the irrealist will certainly not think that all things are equal between realism and irrealism. However, I want to determine whether irrealist contextualism is more plausible than the realist variety assuming that both views are equal on other fronts. It is far less satisfying to declare irrealist contextualism plausible simply because its major competitor fails for other reasons.

3Allan Gibbard (1992, 37) addresses a similar dichotomy between the rationality and desirability of a belief.

4I quickly dismiss the option of viewing moral contexts as mere conventions because I take it to be a view most metaethicists wish to avoid. Regardless, it seems as though Horgan and Timmons’ epistemologically unjustified moral contexts are quite similar to systems of conventions. Although it is true that moral contexts likely arise organically from environmental and social causes (at least according to an irrealist) whereas conventions (such as traffic laws) seem to be developed more intentionally, it is unclear whether this represents an essential difference. After all, conventions are not typically formed in a vacuum; for example, there are cultural and environmental pressures influencing which traffic conventions will be formed. Also, it is conceivable that some elements of moral systems are the result of intentional actions; the importance of marriage, for instance, may be the result of people intending to control how property is inherited. If we find that the moral context/convention distinction is not essential then we must consider how one should relate to morality as a convention. I am not sure how one would do this, but I don’t see any prima facie reason to avoid this line of reasoning altogether. However, this would not overcome my argument from moral seriousness because a conventionalist view of morality by definition precludes epistemological seriousness. This effectively rejects P4 of my argument because it rejects the importance of moral seriousness in our moral experience; I deal with this sort of objection in section 5.

5It is, of course, not clear that realism fails to accommodate naturalism. However, for the purposes of my analysis I have assumed that this is the case.

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