What Counts as Evidence for a Moral Belief?

For a couple of years now I’ve been perplexed by the following problem: What counts as evidence for or justifies a moral belief?  Even in asking the question I’m a bit confused because are two possible interpretations of the question (possibly more). We might say that what justifies a moral belief is that it is well-supported by an argument. In other words, it’s supported by some other beliefs that are presented in a systematic way. But this isn’t a very satisfying answer because inevitably we are going to wonder what supports the justifying beliefs. There’s a danger of regress which I’ll address later.

What I really mean to ask is, what sorts of things count as evidence for a moral claim? Arguments using other beliefs are one sort of ‘thing’. But is that it? Are beliefs the only things that can justify beliefs? I’m compelled by the view that we should admit other sorts of things as evidence, namely, emotions.

At the face of it, it sounds crazy. Imagine you’re in court and you believe someone wronged you and the judge asks you to please justify your claim.  “What evidence do you have for your claim that Mr. X wronged you?” he asks. “Well,” you reply “it just feels like he did.” I doubt your case will do to well.

But let’s pause for a moment and think about how, from a very early age, moral education proceeds. One way we do things (both as children and as adults) is that we offer arguments and introduce facts in order to support moral conclusions. For example, when a child punches another child we might explain to him that you shouldn’t punch other people because punching hurts them. And hurting people is baaaaaad!

On this model we support our claim “one ought not to punch others” with other beliefs. If you read much of the philosophical literature on moral reasoning you might think this is the only tool available for moral education.

A little reflection reveals that it isn’t. I submit that in large part support for moral claims comes from the emotions. That is, emotions led support to moral claims and therefore are a kind of evidence. Let’s revisit the child puncher to see why. There’s a much simpler–and I would argue–more effective way to get him to see why it’s true that he shouldn’t punch other people. We ask him “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”  No argument needed.  And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that he sees the strength of the moral claim more quickly and forcefully than if only the first method had been used.

Appeals to emotions as evidence aren’t restricted to the moral education of children. As adults we appeal to emotions in conjunction with arguments as well as when arguments fail to convince others of our moral claim. In fact, we often use the same technique we employ with children. When arguments fail us, to the recalcitrant party we ask “how would you feel if I did that to you?” When the other party makes a genuine effort to introspect on what it would feel like to have x done to them they might come to endorse the claim that they shouldn’t x. The change of heart comes about without appeal to argument or beliefs as evidence.

Here’s another way we might think that emotions are being used as evidence for a moral position. Most people are aware of the fact that animals are often mistreated on factory farms. They also believe that it would be wrong to support any institution that mistreats animals. Nevertheless, as is often the case, many people don’t come to oppose factory farms until they are actually shown videos and images of what occurs inside some of the farms. 

What’s going on here? It’s not as though they acquired any new beliefs. The already knew that animals are often mistreated in factory farms and they already believed that it’s wrong to support institutions that mistreat animals.  My suggestion is that emotion has played an important evidential role in their position change.  So, more generally, it looks like emotions play an evidential role in moral reasoning. It is, admittedly, another step to say that the emotional response to the horrific treatment of animals justifies their changed belief. I will address this concern shortly. 

I want to suggest one more way in which I think emotions count as evidence for moral claims. Consider a case of a conservative religious opponent to gay marriage (is there any other kind?). Let’s call him Dick. Dick dearly loves his daughter. At some point in her adult life, Dick’s daughter confesses to her father that she is gay. Fairly quickly Dick reverses his position on gay marriage. What happened here? Did Dick all of a sudden come in contact with a new, never-before-heard, compelling argument for marriage equality? Did he acquire some new beliefs that support the claim that marriage equality is just? Doubtful. It’s also doubtful that he just learned that he has the belief “I love my daughter and I want her to be happy.”  No, that’s not likely it.

Likely, it is his love for his daughter and his desire that she be happy that’s doing the work. In fact, it’s not implausible that in his entire set of beliefs the only belief that changed was his belief regarding the permissibility of gay marriage.

What I’ve outlined are a few ways which I think capture how emotions are employed in our everyday moral reasoning. As I alluded above, it is a separate question as to whether emotions ought to be used as evidence; that is to say, whether emotions able to justify moral claims. I don’t want to argue for that positive claim here, but I do think it would be odd to say that in our moral reasoning we ought never to take into account our emotions. 

For this reason I simply want to defend a conditional claim:  if our emotions can sometimes count as evidence for moral claims then several contemporary models of moral reasoning can’t adequately account all the ways in which we come to endorse moral claims.

In closing, I want to flag some potential problems with my view. First, I want to quickly return to considering emotions as justificatory. From the fact that we use emotions in moral reasoning it doesn’t follow necessarily that we ought to. We might think that emotions can lead us to bad moral conclusions, not just good ones. To say that we ought to use emotions as evidence I’d have to show that our emotions get it right more often than they get it wrong.  Or at least pick out the types of cases where they tend to be more reliable than not. I’d also probably have to go through each emotion because some (possibly the reactive emotions) might be less reliable than other emotions. There’s no reason to suppose that each emotion is as likely to lead us to a ‘good’ conclusion.

And while I’m at it, there’s a further problem. My account presupposes a moral view. For example, in the gay marriage case we (most people reading my blog) think that Dick’s love for his daughter got him to the right answer only because we happen to endorse marriage equality. Someone who didn’t endorse that view would say that Dick’s love for his daughter blinded him to the truth.  On the other hand, any theory of evidence will have to contend with this same problem. Whether a belief leads one to endorse the ‘right’ position will depend in large part on what you (dear reader) think the right position is. 

But on the third hand, there’s no need to suppose that a belief has to be true in order to be justified. We can be anti-realist about moral claims and still think that for moral claims some things count as better evidence than others and some claims are better justified than others.

Meh…ethics is complicated.

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