Our books

Become a Fan

« New Contributor: Jamie Carlin Watson | Main | Would contemporary philosophy interest "The Greats", or is it too faddish? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jamie Watson

Thanks, Marcus, for the opportunity to contribute.

Elisa Freschi

Hi Jamie and welcome to the blog!

I must admit I have not read Archard yet, but I am skeptical about its claim (at least as you represent it). In part, this is because I do not trust "intuitions" in general (I think that more often than not prejudices are concealed under this label).

In the specific case of ethics, I wonder why a common human being should have relevant intuitions regarding complex issues which she would probably have never encountered (even in the case of seeming "easy" cases, such as abortion at the 13th week in the case of Huntington disease).

However, I can see another problem with ethical experts, namely that their opinions are indeed likely to contradict common opinions ---and it is not clear whether the head of a hospital or of a company would prefer the former over the latter. As an example: Let us *assume* that there are uncontroversial *ethical* arguments in favour of vegetarianism (e.g., because it consumes less resources). Would a Japanese school director accept to stop serving whale meat lunches to her students? Would an American one refrain from offering meat five days a week? Probably not, because this would conflict with common spread opinions ---even if these were false from the point of view of ethical experts.

Jamie Watson

Hi Elisa,
Thanks for your comment. I feel the force your concerns. Just a couple of points in reply.

First, all I really want to do here is defuse the objection that, if knowledge in a subject matter is ubiquitous, then it either ceases to be expertise or it is impotent as expertise. Whether ethics expertise actually exists is a further question I hope to address later. But I do think there is a qualified kind of moral expertise for clinical consulting, so I must address it at some point.

Second, I agree that a non-moral expert should not presume to understand the implications of complex moral decisions. But, of course, we often do presume to judge the decisions of politicians and religious leaders even when we don't know the whole story. Because of this, I want to keep distinct someone's willingness to rely on a putative expert (a psychological condition) and someone's ability to speak expertly in a subject matter (an epistemic condition). The Japanese school director may not (or may not have reason to) regard the moral expert as an expert, even if she is one.

If we changed the case some, maybe it would sway your intuitions (poking lightheartedly at your intuitions comment, here). For example, if the expert who was called about the food issue were hired for that purpose, as an ethics consultant (let's say particularly with environmental/economic issues, and perhaps holds the status George Agich calls "social role authority"), then the psychological barriers to the director's accepting the putative expert's testimony would likely be lower. Just as, for instance, if an economist said that the school should stop serving whale meat because it consumes fewer resources.

In neither case (ethics or economics) must (or should) the expert be deferred to unreflectively. Nevertheless, the moral expert's testimony (if it is, indeed, expert testimony) should at least constitute prima facie evidence for not serving whale meat. Thoughts?

Michael Cholbi

Jamie, I don't think your post quite represents my own stance on these issues accurately. That notwithstanding, I suspect you're correct that there's no incompatibility between moral expertise and the wide distribution of moral knowledge, just in the way that there's no incompatibility between there being expert chefs and many competent home cooks. Experts will presumably be distinguished from non-experts by their capacity to address hard cases, phenomena, etc.

But that raises the question of what the expertise of the moral expert consists in. In my article, I see it as a fundamentally practical expertise, the ability to identify and make sense of what ought to be done in difficult cases. This is to model moral expertise on legal, financial, etc., expertise -- an expertise in providing counsel. Moral experts have to possess a form of practical wisdom. If so, then the fact that putative moral experts give conflicting counsel is good evidence that, even if there are moral experts, the credentials problem is a serious one.

Your remarks suggest you think of moral expertise as more theoretical, a capacity to analyze and map the terrain of moral problems. I don't deny that's a kind of expertise, though it strikes me less as "moral" expertise than a kind of intellectual aptitude. That model makes the existence of moral experts more likely, but makes moral expertise less interesting than the literature has supposed.

In any event, I'd welcome further remarks on how you understand the distinguishing features of *moral* expertise.

Jamie Watson

Hi Michael,
Thanks very much for your comment. I’m glad for the opportunity to engage with you. I like the distinction between expert chefs and competent home cooks. I have a similar analogy in mind between economists and entrepreneurs who pay close attention to market conditions. If I misrepresented your view, I would certainly like to correct that.

I do view moral expertise as “cognitive” (though I don’t use the term “theoretical”). I don’t deny that cognitive expertise can have a practical component (surgeons, financial analysts), but I distinguish it from “performative” or practical expertise, such that the former includes the ability to understand how and why they do what they do in a way they can convey to others (though not necessarily non-experts). Performative experts, like Olympic swimmers and professional dancers, can be experts without that type of cognitive component. Moral experts, at least those hired as consultants, should most certainly be able to demonstrate and explain their understanding of the moral features of a decision in practice.

I agree that, in the context of a particular type of moral expertise (say, clinical ethics consultants), disagreement would be red flag. But I think clinical ethics consultants do agree on a large number of guiding concerns and claims, even if they disagree about particular decisions in particular cases. I don’t take this latter type of disagreement to be particularly worrisome because, just as there are a number of potentially successful ways to organize your finances, and a number of Pareto optimal economic conditions, there are typically a number of morally permissible options for any decision. Empirically, I will have greater concerns if I learn that ethics consultants disagree on more fundamental considerations, such as whether autonomy is a morally relevant feature of a decision. Thoughts?

Michael Cholbi


Very quickly: As I characterize it, the credentials problem relates to how non-experts would go about identifying moral experts, not about whether experts can rely on other experts.

But on the main point: The credentials problem entails that "performative expertise" won't do, for just the reasons you mention: a savant-like grasp of some domain, a grasp that couldn't be conveyed to others, would not satisfy our yearnings for an expert whose expertise is perceivable or comprehensible.

I tend to agree there's less moral disagreement than (for example) those who appeal to disagreement to argue for irrealism, error theory, etc. That said, experts enter the scene just where common sense runs out and disagreement becomes prominent. (Consider how much disagreement there is in the applied ethics literature about controversial issues.) You say you don't find this worrisome because there can be multiple morally permissible options in some cases. On your view, experts can land on *a* right answer in instances where *the* right answer doesn't exist .I don't deny this, but again, I suspect we draw upon experts in dilemma-ish contexts where it looks as if we face conflicting demands or obligations. That there are lots of moral options is a theoretical claim for which I would want more argument.

But again, I think much of the philosophical discussion about moral expertise turns on what we want moral experts to do for us. As I'm understanding things, I have a more ambitious set of expectations for them than you do.

Jamie Watson

Michael, Excellent. Thanks for this. Yes, I didn't mean to suggest you were concerned with the ability to rely on experts as opposed to identifying them. In part of your dilemma, you say that one's own expertise obviates the need to seek them out. I was just saying this doesn't seem to be true. I will make the context clearer when I write all this up. And I think I agree that much of the discussion turns on what we want moral experts to do for us. I will think more about this. Thanks, again, for engaging with me.

Michael Price

"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."
Ok you do realize all three of the fields you mentioned have unequal skill distributions in the population right? That some people CAN'T answer questions about when to use "whom" or the difference between "criteria" and "criterion"? That there are people who have little to no political discrimination? There are even people who couldn't display moral sensibility to save their lives (they're called sociopaths). So that's strike three, and you're out, because when you're choosing the examples and you're still wrong 3 times, that's a sign there are no examples.

Jamie Watson

Hi Michael,
I appreciate the challenge. Recall that the point is to show that there are examples of widespread expertise that do not obviate the need to appeal to other experts' testimonies. My thought experiment is sufficient for this, and if these examples are not particularly compelling, there may be others.

But with respect to your particular criticisms, I think your use of quantifiers works against you. The fact that some people cannot do these things is not an indicator that (1) they are not generally authoritative about their own language use (we all have blind spots) or (2) that most people can't. The fact is, we do appeal to others with respect to language-use questions and with good reason. Political discrimination is even easier. Few cannot distinguish between "liberal" and "conservative" policies (as these terms are used in their particular political climates). But even if some do not possess it, this is not a reason to think that one couldn't reasonably rely on someone's testimony with respect to them. An expert need not be right about everything (thankfully!), but possess enough competence to speak authoritatively.

Wesley Buckwalter

I suspect this has it roots in cognitive science literature emphasizing comparative levels of proficiency in the study of expertise. But of course there are other ways to conceive of and study expertise within and across domain. Your example about gravitational wave physics is a very convincing example that distribution is only but one way. Some additional thoughts: 1) It is false that if no one is a moral expert it follows that no one has epistemic advantage over anyone else. I can justifiably defer to pretty much all non-experts around me if I am a horrible enough decision maker in a domain orthogonally to whether we agree to label them experts. 2) It’s also false experts have no obligation to defer to other experts in the subject matter. On any realistic level it's hard to believe satisfying various vague benchmarks for expertise would nullify differences in one’s training, experiences, and so on with respect to individual choices or research questions we face slightly varying our epistemic standings. 3) Is this some kind of special problem for morality, or is there a "distribution problem" for pretty much all domains below whatever level of knowledge society happens to be at. If the latter why think this is telling us something about morality. 4) Is it weird or ironic or something people all being really good at stuff makes a problem for expertise, as opposed to say, being all super bad at stuff?

Jamie Watson

Hello Wesley,
Thanks for your comment! I'm glad for the opportunity to engage with you again. I am sure there is some cognitive psychology literature on this, but I am drawing mostly from sociology and philosophy. And I agree that expertise certainly won't look the same across types and in different domains.

With respect to your thoughts. I completely agree with (1). The simplest example is asking someone the time when I have no watch or phone handy. One need not be an expert on time or the time of day or even her own watch in order to have an epistemic advantage over me with respect to the time of day. This suggests that moral expertise is a particular kind of problem beyond mere epistemic advantage. I also agree with (2), as I explain in my post. This became apparent to me in my work on a priori justification. If I am a mathematician, and I think I am justified to a certain degree that I proved a theorem, but all the mathematicians in the world reject my theorem without telling me why, I have at least some reason to lower my confidence in my conclusion. With respect to (3), distribution is not framed as a special problem for morality when it is used as an objection to moral expertise, but there are plenty of problems that do seem unique to moral expertise (such as the autonomy problem, see Driver (2006) and Hopkins (2007)). As for (4), I'm not quite sure what you're asking. Perhaps something like: "We can't all be novices, right? We're all equally bad." If so, that's an interesting question, but I have no initial thoughts about it. Feel free to comment further, especially if I have misunderstood one of your points.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Subscribe to the Cocoon

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory


Subscribe to the Cocoon