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What mystery of moral experience?

Smith, Benedict (2012) 'What mystery of moral experience?', The journal of value inquiry., 46 (2). pp. 197-207.


According to Michael Smith, a “central organizing problem” in contemporary meta-ethics concerns a particular way in which our moral thought and practice is or at least appears mysterious. Our “ordinary moral practice” and the “facts of ordinary moral experience,” he says, contain features which are incontrovertible but mutually incompatible. The features, taken individually, account for some of the basic and inalienable characteristics of our moral thought but they are, on his view, jointly inconsistent. Broadly speaking the features are objectivity and practicality. As Smith puts it: “The problem is that the objectivity and the practicality of moral judgment pull in quite opposite directions from each other…. The objectivity of moral judgement suggests that there are moral facts [and we have] beliefs about what these facts are … but it leaves entirely mysterious how or why having a moral view is supposed to have special links with [motivation]…. The practicality of moral judgement suggests just the opposite, that our moral judgements express our desires…. While this enables us to make good sense of the link [with motivation], it leaves entirely mysterious what a moral argument is supposed to be an argument about.” Let us understand what is meant by the mystery or problem in line with the intention Smith expresses as something which has an explanation, if baffling at first. But the formulation Smith gives of the problem, its standard formulation, involves a problematic psychological account of moral experience. The psychological account involves assuming that moral experience, and what is manifest in ordinary practice, can be accounted for in terms of propositional attitudes, an assumption which drives how the problem is characterized and proposed solutions to it. We need not deny that moral experience can be problematic or mysterious. The principal issue is that the standard view of what constitutes the mystery casts the problem in psychological terms, where the source of the problem is an alleged incompatibility of mental states. The idea is that although our moral thought and practice is apparently coherent, it is, mysteriously, made up of elements that cannot be coherently combined. On an alternative view, moral experience and the ordinary facts which constitute it are not exhausted by our mental states and cannot be exhausted by them. Much of the basic stuff of moral experience has nothing to do with our mental life at all. The ordinary facts of moral thought, discourse, and experience are not well accounted for, let alone exhausted by facts about our mental states or propositional attitudes.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:The final publication is available at Springer via
Date accepted:29 November 1999
Date deposited:19 July 2016
Date of first online publication:10 July 2012
Date first made open access:No date available

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