The Importance of Epistemology in Devising An Objective Morality

In a previous article, I laid out a framework for how one to understand the concept of an objective morality, as well as suggesting a strategy for adequately defining its boundaries and inferring principles therefore. Though this may work as a starting point, however, there’s still much left to be considered and discussed to even approach a comprehensive overview of this complex and controversial topic. Whereas in the last article I made the implicit assumption that objective knowledge really is attainable, I will here seek to further elaborate that position based on insights from the philosophical sub-field of epistemology (theory of knowledge), and explore the degree to which objective knowledge is possible – if at all.

An essential insight in the field of epistemology is Immanuel Kant’s distinction between what he termed the noumenon and the phenomenon. Whereas the phenomenon refers to how we perceive external things, events, and persons, the concept of the noumenon is used to describe those as they are “things-in-themselves”, i.e. objective in that they exist separately from human perception. The distinction appears intuitive enough, but the questions it poses upon us makes it work as a Pandora’s box for better understanding the subject: How well can we possibly get our phenomenon to overlap with the noumenon? That is the fundamental question of epistemology.

The most well-known answer to this question is the claim (often attributed to Plato) that knowledge can be defined as a justified true belief (JTB). In other words, according to this definition, you cannot adequately say that you truly know something unless the belief you’re holding is also both true and justified. Whereas the belief merely refers the phenomenon and what is true describes the noumenon, it is here claimed that the connective factor between them is justification. This definition of knowledge has met a lot of theoretical criticism, however, most notably from Edmund Gettier’s essay “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?“. His objection to the “justified” part of the definition, for instance, is that “it is possible for a person to be justified in believing a proposition that is in fact false.”

This leads us to the question of what really is meant by “justification” of a belief, for there may be many “reasons” or “excuses” that don’t hold philosophical merit, such as that to hold a particular belief is merely convenient in one’s circumstances rather than having to doubt one’s worldview. A more descriptive criteria has been given by Roderick Chisholm, who replaced “S is justified in believing that P” with “S has adequate evidence for P,” but we’re still ultimately just moving the goalpost to now having to define the boundaries of what to consider “adequate evidence”.

Rather than taking that detour, however, I will here make an alternative replacement for the condition, namely that to be justified in believing something here means that “S has come to the conclusion of P through conscious philosophical reasoning with the intent of finding truth and without making use of logical fallacies and shortcuts in the process.” The process of approaching a conclusion has to be conscious in order for the latter to be classified as real knowledge, for although our sub- and unconscious minds can make subtle observations about how the world may work (read Carl Jung’s writings for more details), they need to be regulated and guided by our conscious mind in order to be adequately understood and expressed as empirical claims that we may assess to be more or less likely to appropriately reflect reality.

Furthermore, one may use conscious philosophical reasoning merely to satisfy one’s self-interest, which may only be remotely related to finding truth, which is why I here include the criteria that the conscious philosophical reasoning must be undertaken with the primary – if not only – intention of further approaching an understanding of truth, i.e. objective reality. This process must also not involve any application of logical fallacies or shortcuts (a good overview of these are provided by, as that would defeat the purpose in that it would make your conclusion less likely to be true. I grant that a conclusion being reached through the use of a logical fallacy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false, but even if it was true it wouldn’t have been a justified belief as it has here been defined (which is the essence of the “Gettier problem” objections to the JTB theory).

I believe the definition of “justified” provided here circumvents much of the linguistic play that the JTB debate (as well as many other philosophical debates) has long been characterized by, and involves a far more clear-cut way to get one’s beliefs (phenomenon) to as well as possible overlap with what is true (noumenon). And that’s what philosophy is supposed to be about: a means to better understand reality and to improve one’s lives by applying its teachings – not mere intellectual exercises. As Carl Jung stated in The Undiscovered Self,

Today, our basic convictions have become increasingly rationalistic. Our philosophy is no longer a way of life, as it was in antiquity; it has turned into an exclusively intellectual and academic affair.

With the basics of epistemology having been delineated, we can now begin to explore how we may apply it for expanding our understanding of what an objective morality may look like. As explained in the last article about objective morality, what we perceive as ethics and morality is often based on the mere whims of conscience and law – which are subjective in their nature – and are thus inappropriate to serve as the foundation for a theory of objective morality. The condition of conscious philosophical reasoning here therefore plays an integral part in obtaining a more epistemologically sound understanding of morality (i.e. more likely to be true), and through its application we may more adequately systematize the perceptions that our sub-  and unconscious minds have processed to form our conscience.

How I applied this conscious philosophical reasoning in the last article had two steps, i.e. first dismantling common faulty perceptions of morality (such as using conscience and law as primary anchors) by illustrating the logical fallacies and dilemmas that its reasoning is characterized by, and then ventured to construct the guidelines for a new understanding by clearly defining the terms and concepts at hand and discussing the reasoning behind competing theories/arguments that may be more plausible than the common perceptions originally dismantled.

I hold no conviction that my reasoning is always perfectly sound or that I always follow the epistemological principles exactly as delineated above, but I do believe they can work at least as an ideal to strive towards both for myself and others pursuing a better understanding of reality, and I’ve here clarified my theoretical strategy in order for others to begin thinking more deeply and analytically about issues like these and contribute to the discussion with well-reasoned reflections, whether it be in favor of or against the reasoning I myself have presented. At the end of the day, Ludwig von Mises best explained the extent to which we can truly understand reality, and that pursuing truth is a continual process rather than a final destination:

There is no such thing as perfection in human knowledge, nor for that matter in any other human achievement. Omniscience is denied to man. The most elaborate theory that seems to satisfy completely our thirst for knowledge may one day be amended or supplanted by a new theory. Science does not give us absolute and final certainty. It only gives us assurance within the limits of our mental abilities and the prevailing state of scientific thought. A scientific system is but one station in an endlessly progressing search for knowledge. It is necessarily affected by the insufficiency inherent in every human effort (p. 7).

The best we can ultimately do is to be reflective and curious about how the world works, with a healthy mixture of skepticism and open-mindedness, and help one another – not as partisan opponents, but rather fellow truth-seekers – to become more reasonable and less reliant on logical fallacies and shortcuts.

If you’re interested in learning more about epistemology, I recommend checking out my other article “The Epistemology of Mathematical Economics and the Austrian Critique“, where I applied these principles more in-depth for assessing the epistemological value and limitations of knowledge within mathematics and economics.

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