By Jamie Carlin Watson
Ethics consulting is a growing practice in business, medical, and research contexts. And given the unique subject matter of ethics, there are concerns about the role of ethicists in professional decision-making, even among ethicists. Foremost among these is whether ethicists can, like authorities in other fields, speak as experts about their subject matter. I am currently working on a problem for moral expertise called the credentials problem: arguments that there are no sufficient reasons for non-ethicists to assign greater evidential weight to the testimony of ethicists about what one ought to do than to anyone else’s. I am working on an argument defending the moral expertise of consulting ethicists against this problem, but along the way, I’ve come across a popular objection to moral expertise that I call the distribution problem. While this problem has important implications for how we should respond to moral testimony, I don't think it is a challenge for the plausibility moral expertise. Here’s why.
Some argue that it is implausible for anyone to have the epistemic authority needed for moral expertise because moral knowledge is distributed so thoroughly throughout the population that either:
(a) no one is a moral expert, and therefore, no one has an epistemic advantage over anyone else
with respect to normative moral beliefs, or
(b) everyone is an expert, and since experts have no obligation to defer to
other experts in her subject matter, therefore, no one has moral authority over anyone else.
If either is true, moral expertise faces a distribution problem. David Archard (2011) defends (a), saying that “It does not normally make sense to say that everyone is or can be an expert in some matter” and to say that everyone is an expert is most likely ironic “to indicate the end of expertise” (120). Similarly, writing about the notion of expertise generally, Elizabeth Fricker (2006) and David Coady (2012) claim that expertise involves being in a better epistemic position than others, which suggests that one could not be an expert among experts if there were no non-experts.
But there is evidence that these conclusions are hasty. For instance, imagine that the world’s population were wiped out except for the handful of gravitational wave physicists. It would be odd to imagine that the now universal distribution of knowledge about gravitational wave physics undermines any one of the physicist’s expertise. Further, social scientists Harry Collins and Robert Evans (2007) argue that there are types of expertise they call ubiquitous, “which every member of a society must possess in order to live in it; when one has a ubiquitous expertise, one has, by definition, a huge body of tacit knowledge—things you know how to do without being able to explain the rules for how you do them” (13). Their principal examples are natural language use, moral sensibility, and political discrimination. With respect to natural language, most of us communicate effectively without understanding grammar, mechanics, or the sophisticated idioms we use. Nevertheless, we can answer questions about how to use “whom” and the difference between “criteria” and “criterion” based solely on our immersion in a culture that demonstrates their uses. This sort of competence is possible regardless of whether others have it. So, the wide distribution of knowledge in a subject matter does not threaten the existence of expertise in that subject matter.
Alternatively, one might reject (a) but nevertheless defend (b), that is, she might argue that the epistemic significance of widely distributed expertise is practically null. C. D. Broad (1952) rejects moral expertise because “Moral philosophers, as such, have no special information, not available to the general public, about what is right and what is wrong.” Of course, even if this is true of moral philosophers as such, there are moral philosophers who study ethics precisely for the purpose of consultation. Might these moral philosophers be experts?
Archard thinks not, arguing that even if there were moral experts, “moral philosophy is anchored within common-sense morality” and common-sense morality “is the minimal set of core moral precepts that can be observed to be shared by all conscientious humans who seek to live their lives morally” (2011: 123-24). Therefore, moral philosophers cannot “urge non-philosophers to accept and act upon their expertise” (125). This argument suggests that experts have no reason to rely on other experts. And Michael Cholbi (2007) uses this assumption to frame one aspect of the credentials problem: “[O]ne’s own expertise obviates the need to seek out experts in the first place. Experts don’t need the expertise of other experts” (324). But there is powerful intuitive and anecdotal evidence that this is false.
Experts are not omniscient in their fields. And they are fallible, both in their reasoning and memories. As ubiquitous experts in language, we are justified in consulting others to confirm or disconfirm our use of, for example, plural possessives. Why are we justified? If I have reason to believe my own evidence (self-trust), and I have reason to believe that you are my epistemic peer (whether expert or non-expert), that is, that you are just as likely to be right or wrong as I am, I cannot dismiss your testimony as irrelevant to my beliefs. (Linda Zagzebski (2012:160) offers a similar argument for the authority of moral testimony.) Experts who refuse to engage with or take seriously the claims of other experts do not remain experts for very long, either because they are ignorant of developments in their fields or because their lack of intellectual humility leads them into error.
Nevertheless, even if both (a) and (b) could be defended for some types of moral authority, the sort of moral understanding needed for the expertise we are interested in is certainly not widely distributed throughout society. Most students have to be taught the distinctions between normative and descriptive claims, and among different types of norms: moral, practical, legal, social, and aesthetic. Few people have the opportunity to wrestle with questions about the moral features of end-of-life decisions, the nature and moral boundaries of personhood, or the differences in moral value between quality and quantity of life. And even fewer are faced with the decision of whether to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining medical treatment for themselves or for others. Business decisions about outsourcing labor and research decisions about equipoise require special moral understanding. The simple fact that most people have no grounds for distinguishing a physician’s medical knowledge from her moral assumptions, or for distinguishing the legal definition of competence from the moral respect for persons, suggests a type of moral understanding needed for research, clinical, and business consultation that is not widely distributed among the population.
If all of this is right, the existence of moral expertise is not threatened by the wide distribution of moral knowledge, whether specialized or general.
Archard, David. 2011. "Why Moral Philosophers Are Not And Should Not Be Moral Experts." Bioethics 25(3), pp. 119-127.
Broad, C. D. 1952. Ethics and the History of Philosophy. Routledge.
Cholbi, Michael. 2007. "Moral Expertise and the Credentials Problem." Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10(4), pp. 323-334.
Coady, David. 2012. What To Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Wiley-Blackwell.
Collins, Harry and Robert Evans. 2007. Rethinking Expertise. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Fricker, Elizabeth. 2006. "Testimony and Epistemic Authority." In Jennifer Lackey and Ernest Sosa, eds., The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford, pp. 225-250.
Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief. Oxford.