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A Coherence Theory of Truth in Ethics

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DALE DORSEY

A COHERENCE THEORY OF TRUTH IN ETHICS

ABSTRACT. Quine argues, in ''On the Nature of Moral Values'' that a

coherence theory of truth is the ''lot of ethics''. In this paper, I do a bit of

work from within Quinean theory. Specifically, I explore precisely what a

coherence theory of truth in ethics might look like and what it might imply

for the study of normative value theory generally. The first section of the

paper is dedicated to the exposition of a formally correct coherence truth

predicate, the possibility of which has been the subject of some skepticism.

In the final two sections of the paper, I claim that a coherence theory in

ethics does not reduce the practice of moral inquiry to absurdity, in practice

as well as in principle.

A Coherence Theory of Truth in Ethics

In 1978, Quine published the following cryptic remarks:

Disagreements on moral matters can arise at home, and even within oneself.

When they do, one regrets the methodological infirmity of ethics as compared

with science. The empirical foothold of scientific theory is in the

predicted observable event; that of a moral code is in the observable moral

act. But whereas we can test a prediction against the independent course of

observable nature, we can judge the morality of an act only by our moral

standards themselves. Science, thanks to its links with observation, retains

some title to a correspondence theory of truth; but a coherence theory is

evidently the lot of ethics.1

A great deal of effort has gone into proving Quine wrong on

this point. Attempts have been launched by Morton White,2

Owen Flanagan,3 and others.4 The motivation for resisting

Quine is quite strong: a coherence theory of truth seems to

render illegitimate, in certain respects, reasonable, rational

moral inquiry. We seem to think, when speaking about moral

matters, that our sentences

...

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