Saturday, 19 October 2013

Moral Ontology and Moral Epistemology

Earlier in the year, I was entertaining myself at the Reasonable Faith forums.  A thread which attracted some minor interest for a short while was one on William Lane Craig’s moral argument.

In summary, I linked When Morality Arguments Are Bad and asked if anyone was convinced by Craig on this point.  What followed was a lot of jiggery-pokery concerning various definitions of “objective morality”.  Most of my interaction was with a chap called LNC.  (I assume masculinity due to aggressive stupidity and total lack of conciliation on his part.)

We had some minor skirmishes over various axes of morality, but an issue that LNC returned to a few times was the distinction between “moral ontology” and “moral epistemology”, in both a strand with myself and with another visitor to the forums, Jabberwock.

(sub-strand 1) I think the problem with your article in relation to this argument is: First, it confuses the grounding of morality (ontology) with applied morality (epistemology) ...

(sub-strand 1) Well, I’m glad that Christians seem to be thinking about these issues, but it is not a theistic concept. Moral ontology simply deals with the metaphysics of morality. You can find plenty of discussion on the topic at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. However, it is a philosophical term, not necessarily a theistic term. And no, I didn’t mean “some special Christian interpretation of moral epistemology.” I just meant, moral epistemology.
(sub-strand 2) Here, I believe, you are confusing two arguments. The first is the metaphysical basis of morality or what is known as moral ontology; the second is how we know what is or isn't moral, that is moral epistemology.

Also, Christians don't believe that memory is a basis for morality. Sure, memory is used in our reasoning about morality, but that is not a basis for morality. Again, this confuses ontology and epistemology.


I believe you are confusing the issues of ontology and epistemology again.

(sub-strand 2) You are confusing moral ontology and moral epistemology again. Please keep the arguments straight. Applied ethics is different from the grounding of ethics. Just because some people get morality wrong does not mean that moral facts don’t exist. The same is true for science. Just because scientists in the past had wrong ideas about how the world works, doesn’t mean that there are not facts about how the world works.

Investigation time!

I did point out to LNC that he was not using standard definitions of ontology and epistemology in his first mention of them:

ontology - the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations
epistemology - the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge - if you look up "moral epistemology" you get directed to "meta-ethics" this is not about "applied morality".
… when I look up "moral ontology", I see a lot of Christian sites - it seems to be a particularly theistic usage, one which seems to assume moral realism, since the "existence" of morality is intertwined with its "reality". I think, therefore, that you meant "moral ontology" and some special Christian interpretation of "moral epistemology".

As indicated above, LNC responded by saying that “(m)oral ontology simply deals with the metaphysics of morality”.

According to Wikipedia, metaphysics is:

Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. <snip> The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, e.g., existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility. A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into the basic categories of being and how they relate to each other. Another central branch of metaphysics is cosmology, the study of the totality of all phenomena within the universe.

Given that I am not totally convinced by this, I looked further, given that LNC suggested taking a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  While both have entries on “moral epistemology”, neither has an entry on “moral ontology”, although the IEP’s entry on “moral epistemology” includes one of two uses of term “moral ontology” (the other being in the title of a referred document).  The SEP only mentions “moral ontology” three times, once in a quotation, once in the title of a referred document and once in an article on deontology.  There is, however, an inferred reference to moral ontology in SEP’s “moral epistemology” article (noted below).

SEP: Deontological theories are normative theories. They do not presuppose any particular position on moral ontology or on moral epistemology.

IEP: moral ontology, the study of what sort(s) of reality underwrites the truth or reasonableness of moral claims or attitudes.

SEP: Moral epistemologyHow is moral knowledge possible? This question is central in moral epistemology and marks a cluster of problems … :

·         Sociological …

·         Psychological …

·         Ontological: Moral knowledge is about moral reality. How is that reality constituted? Three general possibilities present themselves. (a) Moral reality might be theological in nature, pertaining to (say) the will of God. (b) It might be a non-natural realm that is neither theological nor natural, but sui generis. (c) It might be comprehensible as a part of the natural world studied by science. Each of these possibilities, however, is beset with difficulties, and no viable fourth alternative has been conceived.

·         Evolutionary …

·         Methodological …

·         Moral …

IEP: Moral epistemology – Can we ever know that it’s wrong to torture innocent children? More generally, can we ever know, or at least have some justification for believing, whether anything is morally right or wrong, just or unjust, virtuous or vicious, noble or base, good or bad? Most of us make moral judgments every day; so most of us would like to think so. But how is such knowledge, or justification, possible? We do not seem to simply perceive moral truth, as we perceive the truth that there is a computer screen before us. We do not seem to simply understand it, as we understand that all roosters are male. And we do not seem to simply feel it, as we feel a bit hungry right now. Moral epistemology explores this problem about knowledge and justification.

So, in summary, having synthesised the definitions above:

moral ontology does relate to moral realism, as I suspected, and

moral epistemology is about how we might have and justify moral knowledge.

This doesn’t seem to link particularly well to LNC’s claims, at least with relation to the latter:

grounding of morality (LNC’s definition of moral ontology)

applied morality (LNC’s definition of moral epistemology)

So we move on, or rather backwards.

The whole discussion centred on an argument raised by Craig.  Craig did not, in his debates with Sam Harris or Stephen Law, get into discussions on moral ontology and moral epistemology.  He did say, however, in his debate with Harris:

Here Dr. Harris didn’t have anything by way of disagreement to say, but I do want to clear up a possible confusion. He represented this by saying that if religion were not true, then words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” would have no meaning. I’m not maintaining that. That is to confuse moral ontology with moral semantics. Moral ontology asks, “What is the foundation of objective moral values and duties?” Moral semantics asks, “What is the meaning of moral terms?” And I am not making any kind of semantical claim tonight that “good” means something like “commanded by God”. Rather, my concern is moral ontology: What is the ground, or foundation, of moral values and duties?

This seems to match quite well with LNC’s words, and with IEP’s definition of moral ontology: “what sort of reality underwrites the truth or reasonableness of moral claims or attitudes?”  That is, so long as a question is involved, rather than an answer.

Craig does get into the distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology at  This is an interesting little article in a couple of ways.  Firstly, the person posing the question talks of “wiggling out of this one” – this is odd terminology for someone who is presenting an apologetic argument (although I can imagine it being used by someone describing an apologetic argument).

Secondly, Craig himself writes:

I’m convinced that keeping the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology clear is the most important task in formulating and defending a moral argument for God’s existence of the type I defend.

This indicates a weakness in the argument, one that Craig appears to recognise, and leads one to suspect that the argument is little more than fancy word play.

Thirdly, Craig uses an image from Moral Skepticism and Justification, supposedly for the purposes of showing that Moral Ontology and Moral Epistemology are distinct.

So far so good, but when we look at the surrounding text, what do Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons have to say?

In order to better understand the field of moral epistemology, it is useful to locate it within the larger territory of moral theory. Any division of moral theory is bound to be controversial, but some framework can help in comparing various views. For this purpose, moral theory is often divided, first, into substantive ethics and meta-ethics.


Metaethics also includes moral ontology, which asks about the metaphysical status of moral properties and facts, if any.


Moral epistemology is yet another area of meta-ethics. Moral epistemologists study justification and knowledge of substantive moral claims and beliefs.  Of course, one cannot determine whether a claim is justified or known to be true if one has no idea what that claim means, so moral epistemology depends in some ways on moral semantics.  It also depends on moral ontology and on the definition of morality. Nonetheless, moral epistemology differs from other areas of meta-ethics in that it focuses directly on justification and knowledge of morality and brings in other theories only insofar as they are relevant to these central concerns.


Moral epistemology is simply epistemology applied to substantive moral claims and beliefs. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justification in general.  It asks whether, when, and how claims or beliefs can be justified or known or shown to be true. Moral epistemology then asks whether, when, and how substantive moral beliefs and claims can be justified or known or shown to be true.

So, in Craig’s source, moral ontology involves questions on the metaphysical status of moral claims without any presumption of moral realism (since the caveat “if any” is used) and moral epistemology asks about how moral beliefs and claims may be known and justified, which aligns with what SEP and IEP tell us.

But what did Craig himself have to say?

The claim that moral values and duties are rooted in God is a Meta-Ethical claim about Moral Ontology, not about Moral Linguistics or Epistemology. It is fundamentally a claim about the objective status of moral properties, not a claim about the meaning of moral sentences or about the justification or knowledge of moral principles.


The salient point is that God’s commands constitute our moral duties. That is a claim of moral ontology. How we come to know our moral duties is a matter of moral epistemology and is irrelevant to the argument. There’s nothing to wriggle out of.

Well, ok.  I’ll quibble about the words, since I think that Craig is the person making an ontological claim about morality.  Alternatively, Craig is the person making a claim which may be considered under the broader topic of moral ontology.  However, either way, Craig is simply wrong if he thinks he can make an ontological claim and then ignore epistemology.  He has to justify his claim.

Craig would, of course, argue that I’ve missed the point.

He would do so by saying that in the second sentence in the quote above, he is talking about specific moral duties, for example “Thou shalt not rape” (an example that Craig raises in his debate with Harris).  How we come to know that rape is “really wrong” is a question of moral epistemology.

That’s correct.  But it’s not what I am saying, so in this Craig would have missed the point – or perhaps more accurately, he would have been doing some Olympics-grade wriggling.

The epistemology that Craig is trying desperately to avoid is associated with his ontological claim that “God’s commands constitute our moral duties”.  How does Craig know that?  How does Craig justify that particular claim?

The point is that so long as that claim is not justified, Craig cannot use the associated claim that “moral values and duties are rooted in God” (or, per his debates, “if God did not exist, (then) objective moral values and duties would not exist”) to prove the existence of his god.

So, for once, I have to agree with Craig.  It is very important for his argument that moral epistemology is avoided – because when moral epistemology is not avoided his argument fails.

When he does avoid moral epistemology, on the other hand, his argument is merely trivial.

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