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Elucidations

Episode 145: Andrew Sepielli discusses quietism and metaethics

Ep. 145

This episode, Matt and Joseph sit down with Andrew Sepielli (University of Toronto) to talk about metaethical quietism. His new book on the topic, Pragmatist Quietism, is out now from Oxford University Press. Click here to listen to episode 145 of Elucidations.


Metaethical quietism is the view that ethical statements—or anyway, a large portion of the ethical statements we’re usually interested in—can’t be justified or disproved by statements from outside of ethics. There’s something autonomous about the topic of ethics (or rather, about a lot of ethics). Consider the question: in the scenario where a trolley is barreling down the track, on its way to clobber five people, and you have the ability to divert it to the other track where it will only clobber one, should you do so? According to quietists such as our guest, you can’t answer this question by asking metaphysicians or logicians for help. It won’t do to investigate whether moral facts are part of the furniture of the universe, or to study the grammar of words like ought. The only way you can answer a question like that is, well, whatever we usually do to answer ethical questions.


Why are philosophers often tempted to think we can turn to metaphysics, logic, or the philosophy of language to help answer ethical questions? Andrew Sepielli thinks it’s because we conflate two different kinds of ethical statements: the statements he calls deep and the statements he calls superficial. A deep statement is one such that, if you believe it, that belief can impact your mental picture of how things are laid out in the world and guide your action. The fancy word for this mental picture of how the world is laid out is non-conceptual representation. A superficial statement is one belief in which does not influence your non-conpceptual representation of the world. The questions that moral philosophers often write about—such as whether one should divert the trolley, or whether utilitarianism is true—are superficial, which is part of why you can only answer them from within ethics. But there are also deep moral questions, such as: will the party we’re thinking of going to be attended by a bunch of jackasses? When you ask that question, you’re deploying moral language—jackass, specifically, so it is definitely a moral question—but you’re also trying to find out which individuals are going to be at the party. And which individuals happen to be at the party is part of the information in your non-conceptual mental map.


In this episode, Sepielli argues that keeping track of when we’re having a superficial debate vs. when we’re having a deep debate can make it seem less mysterious how ethics could be its own autonomous area of inquiry. Tune in to see why he thinks this is the case!

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