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Moral Experience Workshop

Thursday 30th and Friday 31st of March 2023

Wolfson Research Exchange, The Library, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

Moral experience remains an underexplored topic in philosophy. Yet experiences of value, of rightness or wrongness, and similar morally relevant experiences are at the core of our moral lives. The nature of such experiences and their connection to moral knowledge and to moral action deserve to be understood better. Our workshop on “Moral Experience” aims to explore questions such as the following:

  • Is there a specifically moral kind of experience? If so, then what is the mode of moral experience? Is it a form of perceptual experience? Or is it a form of affective experience? And what is the relation between moral experience and moral intuition?
  • What is the cognitive value of experience in the moral domain? How are we to think of the role of experience in the acquisition of these moral epistemic goods? Can we acquire moral knowledge and/or moral understanding directly, or non-inferentially, from experience? Or is there is a mediating process from experience to moral epistemic goods?
  • Are moral experiences perspectival? How should we think of the kind of perspective from which one enjoys a moral experience? Do social identities, emerging from race, sex and gender, or class, for example, have a crucial role to play in shaping moral experience?
  • What is the relation between moral experience, moral judgment, and moral action? One of the central tasks in moral philosophy is to give an account of moral action and the kind of reasons that justify it. What is the role of experience in this context?
Workshop programme:

Thursday 30th of March




Robert Cowan (University of Glasgow)

Moral Perception, Moral Deference, and Parity Principles


Lunch break


Daniel Vanello (University of Warwick)

Moral Understanding, Autobiographical Memory, and Traumatic Experience


Tea and coffee break


Sophie Grace Chappell (Open University)

Inwardness in Ethics


Tea and coffee break


Sarah MacGrath (Princeton University)

(What) is Moral Experience? (What) Do We Want it to Be? (online talk)




Workshop dinner (on campus)

Friday 31st of March


Fabienne Peter (University of Warwick)

Moral Affordances and the Demands of Fittingness


Tea and coffee break


Max Khan Hayward (University of Sheffield)

How Moral Experience makes us Rational Agents


Lunch break


William FitzPatrick (University of Rochester)

The Roles of Moral Experience in Metaphysically Committed, Non-Naturalist Ethical Realism (online talk)


Tea and coffee break


Nomy Arpaly (Brown University)

Three Kantian Mistakes




Optional dinner (off campus)


Fabienne Peter and Daniel Vanello

How to register:

Registration is free, but please register by sending an email to

Refreshments and lunch will be provided on both days. Also, if you want to attend the workshop dinner on Thursday 30th, then please note this in your email. There is an extra charge for the dinner.


Nomy Arpaly: Three Kantian Mistakes

Sophie Grace-Chappell: Inwardness in Ethics

I begin with a summary statement of what I call “the Manifesto”, which is a succinct expression of an entire, and extremely influential, ideology of philosophical ethics: the one that I call “systematic moral theory”, and have been writing against for a decade now. My paper is about why Iris Murdoch rejects the Manifesto; and why anyone should.

Murdoch quotes with approval Paul Valéry’s “A difficulty is a light; an insuperable difficulty is a sun.” It sounds paradoxical to suggest that philosophy is about confronting impossible questions; the whole point of the Manifesto is to resolve questions, not leave them hanging. But I show how in a number of ways it is right to think of ethics as concerned with questions that can’t be made to go away. Ethical philosophy is much more difficult than the Manifesto’s get-it-over-with conception of the subject makes it out to be. But also, much more interesting.

Robert Cowan: Moral Perception, Moral Deference, and Parity Principles

This paper connects two debates in moral epistemology. First, debate about the existence, nature, and significance of moral perception. Some have defended a "pure" model of moral perception according to which sensory perceptual experience sometimes (re)presents moral qualities and that such experiences are produced independently of subjects’ background attitudes and beliefs. Second, there is debate concerning the normative status of moral deference. Some endorse “Pessimism” about moral deference, according to which there is something distinctively problematic about deferring to someone else about a moral proposition. Recent Pessimist accounts have appealed to various bad-making features: inter alia, that deference falls short with respect to ideals of authenticity, or understanding, or virtue.

I here argue in favour of a series of Parity Principles each with the form if feature x is a problematic feature of moral deference, then feature x is a problematic feature of forming beliefs on the basis of pure moral perception. Specifically, I defend Principles where x = authenticity, understanding, and virtue. I then tentatively reject the view that such Parity Principles can be deployed in arguments against the relevant Pessimist views about moral deference; rather the Parity Principles may simply reveal normative limitations of pure moral perception.

William FitzPatrik: The Roles of Moral Experience in Metaphysically Committed, Non-Naturalist Ethical Realism

According to non-naturalist ethical realism, there are ethical properties and facts that are distinct from the sorts of properties and facts recognized by naturalists, due to their irreducibly normative character. On a metaphysically committed version of this view, these properties and facts are part of the ontology of the world. This attractively captures certain aspects of ethical phenomenology and robust normativity that seem to elude rival approaches such as naturalism or quietist non-naturalism. But it also faces a deep epistemological challenge: How can we know about these irreducibly normative aspects of the world? In particular, how do we come to know the fundamental normative properties and facts that ground the basic ethical standards we bring to the table in making ordinary ethical judgments? Appeals to intuition or self-evidence that might suit other approaches, such as ones that takes basic ethical truths to be conceptual truths or akin to mathematical truths, will not work here, since what is at issue is not just grasping conceptual content and relations or other abstracta, but accessing worldly normative properties and facts.

I believe that concrete ethical experience must play the crucial role here instead. Most epistemic treatments of ethical experience, however, focus on how experience of some event, for example, can constitute a perception of an injustice, say, or support an ethical judgment—where the agent is assumed already to have a grasp of ethical standards that are brought to bear on the situation. I’m interested instead in the role that ethical experience of the right kind might play in our coming to apprehend the basic ethical standards in the first place. The idea is roughly that emotionally-laden ethical experience enables us to engage with irreducibly evaluative or normative aspects of the world, and thereby come to grasp the ethical standards they ground. On this view, basic ethical knowledge is neither a priori nor a posteriori in the naturalist’s sense of stemming from experience of empirical properties: the experience in question is of irreducibly evaluative or normative aspects of the world.

Max Khan Hayward: How Moral Experience makes us Rational Agents

According to orthodox views of rational decision making, such as decision theory and game theory, as well as moral theories that incorporate these standards of rationality into their account of right action, such as act-utilitarianism, the fundamental locus of rational decision-making is the individual agent – indeed, an individual time-slice of an agent, choosing a single, atomic action.

However, this is not how human beings naturally understand their decisions. When we choose, we don’t just choose single atomic actions, but plan suites of actions. And we treat our agency as something extended over time – we act as though we are capable of resolute action, and often assume that our future selves will abide by our current decisions. And we often seem to decide and act with others, naturally solving coordination problems that game theory regards as difficult or rationally insoluble.

This paper makes three arguments:

First, it makes a difference how we frame the decisions open to us – whether we treat our agency as extending over time, or crossing the boundaries between agents. Team-reasoning is irreducible to individual reasoning; diachronic choice is irreducible to synchronic choice.

Second, it’s often the case that different ways of framing our choices are rationally permissible, so we face a higher-order choice as to how to frame our options: whether to second-guess our future selves or treat our decisions as resolute, whether to think as an individual or as a member of a team. But it is unclear how we can rationally solve this higher-order decision problem.

Third, moral experience often solves this problem, by framing our options for us. When we deliberate, we naturally experience our options as those that are in fact open to a team or a agent extended over time. And indeed, this is often self-rationalising – because we are naturally inclined to think in these ways, it becomes optimal to do so at any particular point.

As a result, the fact that the perspective presented to us by moral experience diverges from the perspective assumed by orthodox theories of rationality, far from making us irrational, in fact makes us better agents.

Sarah McGrath: (What) is Moral Experience? (What) Do We Want it to Be?

Presumably the expression “moral experience” is not an expression of ordinary English, in the way that, say, “good experience” and “bad experience” are. (Compare: “I had a good experience at work this morning” with “I had a moral experience at work this morning.”) But, as the title of this workshop manifests, “moral experience” does have currency in certain philosophical circles. One central goal of this paper is to taxonomize the different things that theorists might have in mind when they either affirm or deny that there is such a thing as “moral experience.” The other goal is to explore what we, as theorists, might want moral experience to be. I present a moral analogue of Jackson’s knowledge argument in order to illustrate the thesis that the moral content presented in perceptual experience might be ineffable. I argue that understood in this way, moral experience can be what’s missing from cases in which an agent has the intellectual grasp of the reasons before her, but fails to see them as reasons, and so lacks motivation to act in accordance with them.

Fabienne Peter: Moral Affordances and the Demands of Fittingness

Some situations appear to make moral demands on us – they call for a certain response. How can we account for such moral experiences? And what normative properties or relations are involved? This paper argues that can we account for such paradigmatic moral experiences in terms of moral affordances, where moral affordances are opportunities for fitting action. The paper demonstrates that the concept of affordances helps to generate new insight in moral inquiry, especially in relation to the moral significance of fittingness.

Daniel Vanello: Moral Understanding, Autobiographical Memory, and Traumatic Experience

The aim of this paper is to argue that the exercise of autobiographical memory can constitute an epistemic access to moral properties of events experienced in the past. Autobiographical memory is the ability to recollect events in one’s past as part of one’s personal history. I distinguish my claim from the claim that we can have epistemic access to moral properties of events that occurred in the past but that we have not experienced and from the claim that one can retrieve information about the moral property of an event experienced in the past but where the epistemic access occurred in the present at the time of the experience. I articulate my argument by relying on work in developmental psychology on the role of autobiographical memory in coping with traumatic experiences. I argue that these studies show that some people cope with traumatic experience by understanding the traumatic experience as falling under a given moral description. I argue that this constitutes an epistemic access to a moral property of an event experienced in the past. I then rely on Goldie’s work on dramatic irony to explain the possibility of autobiographical memory granting epistemic access to a moral property of an event experienced in the past. I conclude by suggesting two reasons why the epistemic access to a moral property granted by autobiographical memory plays a distinctive role in moral epistemology.