Generics, Generalism, and Reflective Equilibrium: Implications for Moral Theorizing from the Study of Language*


Ethicists often find themselves facing what we call “familiar epistemic dilemmas.” They want to endorse the moral judgment that P when they reflect on a particular case, but they also want to endorse a general principle that implies that P is false. In conflicts of this sort, they must either reject their judgment about the case in favor of the judgment implied by the principle, or else revise their principle so that it conforms with their judgment about the case. Generalists in moral epistemology believe that when these conflicts arise, the best default strategy is to favor our general principles over our judgments of particular cases, whereas particularists privilege judgments about particular cases. In this paper, we offer a novel argument against generalism.2 Recent work in cognitive science and psycholinguistics suggests that people often endorse false universal generalizations (e.g., “All ducks lay eggs”) when there are nearby generic generalizations that are true (e.g., “Ducks lay eggs”). In this paper, we argue that this “generic overgeneralization effect” extends to the moral domain, and that this psychological fact undercuts prominent philosophical justifications for generalism. In brief, the generic overgeneralization effect provides a debunking explanation of people’s intuitive attraction to

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Lerner2013GenericsGA, title={Generics, Generalism, and Reflective Equilibrium: Implications for Moral Theorizing from the Study of Language*}, author={Adam Lerner and Sarah-Jane Leslie and Sara Aronowitz and Daniel Bernston and Matthias Brinkmann and Mara Bollard and Paul Boswell and Daniel J Drucker and C. Freiman and Robbie Hirsch and Benedikt Kahmen and William MacAskill and Nils-Hennes Stear and Eric Hubble and Zo{\"{e} Johnson-King and Mark Johnston and Hrishikesh Joshi and Sydney Keough and Barry B. McGuire and Phillip Stratton-Lake and Nina Windg{\"a}tter and Daniel Wodak and Jack Woods}, year={2013} }