Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

This paper outlines my theory of moral perception, extends the theory beyond its previous statements, and defends it from a number of objections posed in the literature. The paper distinguishes the perceptible from the perceptual; develops a structural analogy between perception and action; explains how moral perception, despite its normative status, can be causal in the way appropriate to genuine perception; clarifies the respects in which moral perception is representational; and indicates how it provides an objective basis for moral knowledge. In the light of this account of moral perception, its presentational character is described, particularly the phenomenological integration between our moral sensibility and our non-moral perception of the various kinds of natural properties that ground moral properties. The complexity of this integration raises the question whether moral perception is inferential and thereby quite different from ordinary perception. This question is answered by clarifying the notion of inference and by pursuing an analogy between moral perception and perception of emotion. Aesthetic perception is also considered as, within limits, instructively analogous to moral perception. The final parts of the paper explore the role of cognitive penetration and cognitive attitudes such as belief and judgment in relation to moral perception; the conceptual and developmental aspects of moral perception; and the latitude my overall account of it allows in the epistemology and ontology of ethics.

The topic of perception is crucial for many fields of philosophy. Epistemology, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics are obvious cases, but metaphysics, too, concerns the nature of perceived objects and, of course, what it implies about the constitution of perceivers. In ethics, by contrast, most major writers have taken for granted that there is perceptual knowledge and have considered any moral knowledge we possess to be largely dependent on perceptual knowledge but quite different in kind. In recent years, however, philosophers have been exploring the analogy between singular moral cognitions and non-moral perceptions, and some have argued—as I have in considerable detail—that moral phenomena are genuinely perceptible and that moral perception can ground perceptual moral knowledge of its objects. This paper will both summarize some essentials of my account and extend it by responding to some problems that have not yet been given the scrutiny they deserve.

1 The most detailed statement of my theory of moral perception is presented in Audi 2013, which, in the opening section of this paper and in a few later passages, I draw on heavily, though with some revisions.


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