The Limits of Self-Effacement: A Reply to Wittwer


This article is concerned with the interconnection between three arguments: the Moral Explanatory Dispensability Argument (Moral EDA), the Epistemic Explanatory Dispensability Argument (Epistemic EDA), and the Companions in Guilt Argument (CGA). Silvan Wittwer has recently argued that the Epistemic EDA is self-effacing, whereas the Moral EDA is not. This difference between them is then leveraged by Wittwer to establish that there is a significant disparity between these arguments and that this disparity undermines attempts to use the CGA as a means of refuting the Moral EDA. After explaining the connections between these arguments, I provide three different responses to Wittwer’s analysis. First, I develop a plausible case in favor of the conclusion that the Moral EDA is also self-effacing. Second, I defend the Epistemic EDA from the charge of self-effacement and respond to Wittwer’s assertion that my preferred method of escaping his argument is dialectically inappropriate. Finally, I explain how some arguments recently articulated by Richard Rowland and Ramon Das support my objections to Wittwer’s self-effacement argument.

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  1. 1.

    For the purposes of this paper, I will be using the term ‘normative moral facts’ to refer to the types of moral facts that are generally thought by moral error theorists to be objectionable. Wittwer often refers to these as ‘moral facts’, but also often points to the normativity of these and other facts as the central concern of moral error theorists (see, for example Wittwer 2019, 11–12). In order to differentiate the ontologically objectionable moral facts from other, less objectionable understandings of these facts (such as descriptive, hypothetical, or instrumental interpretations of them), I will consistently designate them with the term ‘normative.’.

  2. 2.

    This argument came to prominence during a debate in the late Twentieth Century between Gilbert Harman and Nicholas Sturgeon. The Moral EDA, as stated by Harman, is as follows: “The observation of an event can provide observational evidence for or against a scientific theory in the sense that the truth of that observation can be relevant to a reasonable explanation of why that observation was made. A moral observation does not seem, in the same sense, to be observational evidence for or against any moral theory, since the truth or falsity of the moral observation seems to be completely irrelevant to any reasonable explanation of why that observation was made. The fact that an observation of an event was made at the time it was made is evidence not only about the observer but also about the physical facts. The fact that you made a particular moral observation when you did does not seem to be evidence about moral facts, only evidence about you and your moral sensibility.” (Harman 1988, 122). Versions of this argument have been more recently been deployed by proponents of the moral error theory such as Joyce (2006) and Olson (2014).

  3. 3.

    It is worth noting that the conclusion of Wittwer’s interpretation of the Moral EDA is much stronger than those that were put forward by other recent proponents of the argument. Joyce, for example, explicitly acknowledges that the Moral EDA can only give us cause to reject normative moral facts if we cannot successfully reduce the moral to the natural: “If the moral facts are reducible to the non-moral facts invoked in the genealogical explanation, then the former cannot be eliminated on grounds of parsimony, any more than cats should be eliminated from our ontology because we can explain them in terms of physics” (Joyce 2006, 189). Similarly, Woods explicitly describes the Moral EDA as a “burden shifting argument” (Woods 2018, 27). Versions of the Moral EDA are not, according to Woods, meant to show that we should believe that moral facts do not exist. Rather, Woods interprets Moral EDAs as claiming that we should believe that moral facts do not exist “unless we have additional reasons – reasons arising from something other than the best explanation of why we believe them – to believe them” (Woods 2018, 9).

  4. 4.

    Versions of the Companions in Guilt Argument have been used by an impressively large number of philosophers, including Bedke 2010; Clark-Doane 2020; Clipsham 2018/2019; Cuneo 2007; Das 2016; Fletcher 2018; Murphy 2020; Rowland 2013/2014; Scanlon 2014; & Shafer-Landau 2003/2006.

  5. 5.

    See Clark-Doane 2020.

  6. 6.

    One example is found in Das 2016. Das specifically uses scientific beliefs about which mountain is tallest (Das 2016, 9).

  7. 7.

    An argument of this form figures prominently in Shafer-Landau 2006 as well as Clipsham 2018.

  8. 8.

    A prudential Companions in Guilt Argument has recently been articulated in Fletcher 2018. It is also reminiscent of Bedke’s assertion that “if moral reasons are metaphysically queer, all reasons are metaphysically queer, including without exception reasons to advance one’s ends” (Bedke 2010, 42).

  9. 9.

    This is by far the most common companion that is discussed in the recent literature. It figures centrally in some of the more influential recent works on this topic, such as Rowland 2012.

  10. 10.

    See, for example, Prior 1960, Karmo 1988, Dreier 2002, Nelson 2007, Pigden 2007, Hill 2008, Maitzen 2008, Maitzen 2010, Restall & Russell 2010, Schurz 2010, Vranas 2010, Brown 2014, & Clipsham 2015

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Hill 2008 and Clipsham 2015

  12. 12.

    There are some exceptions to this general rule. For example, if the ‘should’ in this clause is interpreted pragmatically (to mean something like ‘it would be in our best interests to believe this’), then I would argue that the newly composed sentence is pragmatic or prudential, rather than moral. But if we interpret the word ‘should’ as expressing an epistemic obligation, then the addition of this clause before a moral statement does not seem to significantly change the moral content of that statement. Furthermore, Wittwer’s self-effacement objection turns on the claim that the analogous premise in the Epistemic EDA “encodes an epistemic obligation: it tells us that we should deny the existence of explanatorily superfluous entities” (Wittwer 2019, 11). Thus, the word ‘should’ in the conditional premise discussed above must, in this dialectical context, be interpreted epistemically rather than prudentially.

  13. 13.

    Fantl defines the term ‘commit’ in the following way: “P commits you to Q just in case your willingness to assert P means that you must believe Q in order to remain ideally rational” (Fantl 2006 29).

  14. 14.

    My preferred account of the distinction is Clipsham’s modified version of Dreier’s and Fantl’s view, which he deems TIPTOES. This account is inspired by Dreier and Fantl, but is differentiated from them in its attempt to deal with the problems associated with conjunctive moral statements.

  15. 15.

    In order to engage with Wittwer’s argument, there is need for a term that can serve as a placeholder for interpretations of moral and epistemic facts that are not ontologically problematic, and whose existence would not be called into question by explanatory dispensability arguments. I am following Wittwer in using the term ‘hypothetical’ to refer to these interpretations of normative facts. This may seem to be an imperfect choice of terminology, as ‘hypothetical’ normative facts are usually contrasted to ‘categorical’ normative facts and, furthermore, some philosophers contend that hypothetical facts are just as ontologically problematic as categorical ones (Bedke 2010). However, despite these concerns, I will continue to use the term ‘hypothetical’ for the sake of simplicity and consistency with Wittwer’s choice of language.

  16. 16.

    Specifically, Wittwer considers the possibility that “Ockham’s razor is best understood as expressing a hypothetical epistemic obligation: we should believe that explanatorily superfluous entities don’t exist—if we want true metaphysical beliefs (and denying that explanatorily superfluous entities exist is likely to help satisfy that desire of ours)” (Wittwer 2019, 12).

  17. 17.

    Although it is worth noting that Resnik is not a proponent of the claim that the principle of parsimony is hypothetical. Rather, his conclusion is that we “dispense with this dubious distinction” between hypothetical and categorical norms when discussing the methodological assumptions that ground scientific reasoning (Resnik 1992, 498).

  18. 18.

    Both of these examples are taken from Clipsham 2018, 16.

  19. 19.

    I take my own argument that the Epistemic EDA can interpreted in such a way that it does not commit us to any categorical epistemic obligations as sufficient evidence that Wittwer’s assertion that the Epistemic EDA is self-effacing is contestable.


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Clipsham, P. The Limits of Self-Effacement: A Reply to Wittwer. Philos Stud (2021).

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