Date of Award

July 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David Sobel


epistemology, moral epistemology, moral perception, moral psychology, moral realism, non-naturalism

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation develops and defends the claim that our epistemic access to

moral properties is grounded in a posteriori perceptual experiences. It is divided into

two parts. In part I, I present the epistemic access problem for realist moral

epistemology, and then argue against several a priori attempts to resolve the problem. I

begin by defending an understanding of evolutionary debunking arguments according

to which the problem is grounded in a lack of epistemic access to sui generis, non-causal

moral facts. Next, I argue that even the most sophisticated versions of reflective

equilibrium fall victim to the “garbage in, garbage out” objection which besets

coherentist theories more generally. I then survey the most influential other a priori

approaches to epistemic access. I conclude that each of them is victim to some variation

of the same dilemma: Either they fail to ensure epistemic access, or they succeed by

providing epistemic access to the wrong properties—viz. not the robustly normative


In part II, I defend a wholly a posteriori moral epistemology according to which

our epistemic access to the moral properties is via perceptual experience. I begin with a

positive argument that moral properties figure in the contents of perceptual experience,

making use of the “method of contrast” found in the philosophy of perception

literature. Next, I defend the foundationalist credentials of the perceptualist view in

light of the objection that moral experiences will be epistemically dependent on prior

background (moral) beliefs. I claim that the epistemic dependence of these moral

experiences depends on the nature of influence the prior beliefs have and that the

influence is not of the problematic sort. I then discuss the role of emotions in generating

moral perceptions. I argue that emotions play an essential role in moral perceptual

experiences, but that this is compatible with foundationalism and perceptualism.

Finally, I return to the issue of epistemic access, arguing that the perceptual view

provides an explanation of our epistemic access to the moral properties.


Open Access