When we seek a philosophical (conceptual) analysis of some term or other, we seek to explain what is meant by the term in language which is different from, and perhaps easier to understand than, the very term itself. We seek out conceptual analysis of those terms which express concepts that we grasp, but do so only vaguely and incompletely. For example, assuming I am acquainted with Billy (a biologist) and we’ve had many discussions about the dietary habits of various birds, I assert that the following sentence is true: ‘Billy knows what penguins eat’. Seems natural enough; we do make assertions like this all the time. Since we do often make such assertions, and (pre-philosophically anyway) bandy about terms like ‘knows’ and ‘knowledge’ heedlessly, it seems that we must have this sort of vague and incomplete grasp of the concept, or family of closely related concepts expressed by the terms ‘knows’ and ‘knowledge’.
Of course, as any student of epistemology knows, this is exactly where the easy part ends and philosophizing takes over. We might try first to give an analysis of the concept(s) expressed by the term ‘knowledge’ by claiming that ‘Billy knows what penguins eat’ is true just in case Billy has a true, justified belief about what penguins eat. But of course, there are well-worn examples that purport to demonstrate that knowledge can’t merely consist in the possession of true, justified beliefs. Does Smith really know that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket?
In any case, there have been almost 45 years of philosophical peregrination around the neighborhood of the Gettier problems. Even so, I believe that even after a student has been exposed to such wanderings, he is unlikely to lose the vague and incomplete grasp he had on the concepts expressed by ‘knowledge’. We can see this because the student can still use the terms in question in the competent pre-philosophical way. And to that I’d like to add something controversial. Not only does the student retain the vague and incomplete grasp of this concept, I believe he does so because Plato’s original analysis of knowledge as true, justified belief is very close to being the right one. True, something must be added or slightly changed to explain why Smith doesn’t know that Jones drives a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, but even in philosophical circles we can mostly agree on when a cognizer knows that p when we’re presented with a specific scenario. We can at least point to paradigm instances of knowledge that we all agree to.
Now, having said all that, I come to the topic as advertised in the title of this post. Why do I find ethics difficult? I find it difficult because, even though a student might have the vague and incomplete grasp of the concept expressed by ‘morally right’ before his study of ethical theories begin, once he learns about consequentialism and deontology (for example), it often becomes a bit harder for him to retain his pre-philosophical conceptual competence. For example, our student might struggle just a bit more over the question of whether doing action A is morally right because, on one hand doing A maximizes utility, but on the other hand doing A is morally repugnant for some other reason. (A might be the imprisonment of innocents or the like.) Even if the student’s own struggle and uncertainty isn’t unsettling for him, I assert that the motley of intuitions that are unleashed by exposure to various ethical theories such as consequentialism and deontology makes more difficult agreement on paradigm cases of moral rightness.
What I see as a dissimilarity between epistemology and ethics is the source of ethics’ special difficulty. Like all philosophy, epistemology is difficult. It’s difficult though we can mostly agree on paradigm cases of knowledge even after we’ve been exposed to the Gettier cases. If what I’ve said about ethics has persuaded anyone, we should see that ethics is difficult for all the reasons that philosophy in general is difficult, but yet more difficult for the reason that exposure to ethical theories weakens (all of, or at least most of) the intuitions we had when we first approached the matter. It seems to me that this weakening of intuitions can lead to the lack of a common direction in which we proceed when we engage in the collective enterprise of philosophical analysis of the concept(s) expressed by terms like ‘morally right’.