“Dear moral expert …”

If there are moral experts, this would seem to have important implications for a number of issues in philosophical ethics.  So who is a moral expert?  Here are some thoughts of my own.

[1] A moral expert is someone to whom one could go for sound moral advice.  The moral expert is an expert about morality in the sense that a physician is an expert about health, not in the way that (say) an historian  is an expert about a particular field or period in history.  That is to say, moral expertise is a kind of practical expertise.

[2] Moral experts would obviously know a great deal about morality.  Their expertise would transcend knowledge of the mundane and platitudinous — that one should do the lesser evil than the greater, etc.  But  they would also have the moral knowledge capable of deciding hard cases (assuming that hard cases can be decided).  Furthermore, a moral expert need not be a moral theorist, nor have a worked out moral theory.  Nevertheless, the moral expert must be able to provide justifications for her moral judgments, even in hard cases.  We would, I suspect, think that an ‘expert’ who dispensed moral verdicts in an oracular style (‘do X, not Y’) but was utterly flummoxed as to why these are the proper moral verdicts to reach, was not really an expert.  The delicate nature of moral decision — that it involves careful weighing of  interests and welafre, concern for principle, etc. — suggests that an "expert" whose accounts of her own moral verdicts were slender or non-existent is hitting upon the right moral verdicts by accident and is therefore not a genuine expert. (Sounds like Plato, don’t it?)

[3] A moral expert is motivated by her moral beliefs.  Perhaps this is more controversial. But when I envision a moral expert, it seems hard to disentangle his expertise (that he knows a lot about morality) from the desire to be good.  Because bona fine moral knowledge is hard to acquire, we would expect that anyone who does acquire it will be highly motivated to act upon that knowledge.  Would we not be perplexed as to how anyone could be an alleged moral expert who failed to act on her own prescriptions?

So who are the moral experts?

12 Replies to ““Dear moral expert …”

  1. I think it would have to be #1. Socrates makes a claim like this in the Gorgias, where he claims to be the only person practicing the political craft. The moral expert would know how to produce good souls, in exactly the same sense of “produce” as the medical expert produces good bodies.
    #2 is unclear about what kind of account would be needed. If it is a strong, causal account of virtue and how to get there, that’s #1. If it’s a fuzzy account, why wouldn’t a strong, causal account be preferable? It seems bizarre to ask for an account, but not ask for a good one.
    #3 is something we shouldn’t worry about too much. It is possible to have an account and not act on it, like a smoking doctor, but it is rare. However, without the knowledge of how to be good, what is the point of wanting to be good? Imagine a doctor who doesn’t know anything about medicine. Not only would that person be a bad doctor, but he or she would be extremely dangerous with ignorance, good intentions and a scalpel.

  2. You’ve asked the wrong question. In fact, you’ve asked a question for which any answer you might find has no basis in reality whatsoever.
    “Morality” is a man made concept and has nothing to do with real life. Don’t believe me?
    Next time you see a cat kill a rat, try looking into its eyes to find some remorse.
    Due to the Christian Church man has become too far removed from nature and the way he is “supposed” to be.
    One of the reasons the Christian Church has so little power to motivate the masses or inspire hope is because they’ve made “Christ” into your so called morality expert. The fact is, Christ was a man and he HAD to fuck up from time to time.
    Do yourself a favor – let go of your dreams of finding some model of perfection be it in yourself or in someone else. Reach for what is REAL. Reach for what you can actually BE. And reach for what other people can actually be for you.
    You’ll be a lot happier if you will.

  3. Dear Michael,
    This is a great topic, and if I could make a quick plug for one of my subfields, it is also one on which the Chinese philosophers are quite strong. (This of course doesn’t mean that they offer one really good account of moral expertise, but rather that they offer a panoply of different accounts, each seemingly very plausible but typically difficult to reconcile with the others.)
    I have some alternatives to mention. First, while I think most of us are likely to agree that moral expertise consists in something more like the practical knowledge of the physician, it’s an open question whether the practical knowledge is really as much an “expertise” as the physician’s is. That is, is it the sort of thing that requires years of arduous study and practice, or is it accessible to most of us just by muddling through our everyday lives?
    It is probably less fashionable to hold the view that it is more like a rarified expertise, but there’s actually quite a bit to be said for it. Consider, for example, the sorts of reasons people tend to give for their views on illegal immigration. My own relatives continually invoke an assortment of nightmare scenarios to justify a kind of zealous closed door policy, scenarios that are completely out of touch with the facts. It seems to me that they would have to know a great deal more about how cultures blend, what drives a person to leave her home and live abroad illegally, etc. before being able to make a sophisticated judgment about the policy issues, and this would seem to be as much a moral issue as any other.
    On the other hand, moral decision-making would seem to be something we all get a great deal more practice at than decision-making about health, since we do it a countless number of times every day. So unlike the doctor, who has to go out of his way to find good material from which to learn, the moral expert can work with material that is much more readily accessible to her. This might be taken to suggest that moral expertise isn’t so rarified after all.
    One important issue here (and this bears on your #2) is whether there are sometimes legitimate “authority claims” for moral experts, such that the moral experts can justifiably claim to know that you should do X rather than Y, and yet be unable to give you reasons that you might find compelling. This is a contentious subject for the philosophers I read, with some claiming that you will sometimes be unable to understand the reasons for doing X until after you have already become a reasonably educated and cultivated person, and others claiming that the germs of potential understanding are already in us.

  4. Interesting set of issues. Julia Driver has a nice paper on moral expertise forthcoming in Phil. Studies, though I don’t think its on the web anywhere yet…
    – Mike Ridge

  5. You might think that to have experts in a field you’d have to be able to recognize them. With practical matters such as car repair of house building there are relatively obvious ways to test expertise, even for non-experts. If they can’t fix most cars they aren’t and expert. If the house falls down . . .
    With science it is trickier to say how we tell. Part of it is a sociological test for those of us on the outside. The other people who seem to be experts include the expert in question as one of the people who knows a good bit. But at least in principle we can do a bit of digging, see whether what they say checks out, look for experimental evidence and so on.
    What would the equivalent be in morality? Given deep divisions over much of morality, it isn’t obvious that a sociological test would work.
    Nor is there some pragmatic test of at least ultimate moral goals/principles. I can see that if for example we thought consequentialism of some sort was correct, and if some person reliably gave advice that led to better consequences, we might regard them as an expert much as the car mechanic who reliably fixes the car would be one. But if we want someone to tell us which things are most worthwhile or which consequences are worth going in for, or what constraints on action make the most sense, I’m not sure how we’d identify who would be reliable about that. Of course if I already have views, I might think that so and so was an expert. But then what do I need the expert for?
    I guess I think with respect to morality some people know more than others, but that it would be very hard for someone to play the expert role, in the sense that other people could use her to figure out what to do at the most basic level.
    Maybe math would give us better analogies. But I’m not sure. My only point here is that for someone to play the role of expert it isn’t just that they have to know what they are doing, the rest of us have to have some way of finding out that they know what they are doing. And I’m not sure how this would work in ethics.

  6. Why does there need to be a test, though? As Socrates points out, given the choice between a pastry baker and a doctor, children will always think the pastry baker is better for them. Part of the craft of ethics is knowing what the good is, so we shouldn’t expect non-experts to know and therefore able to judge the real expert. That non-experts can’t make this judgement is just a tragic fact.

  7. Justin –
    It isn’t clear to me that we get more practice at moral-decision making than at decision-making about health, at least as regards the “minor” daily moral and health issues. Each day we make countless decisions about health issues, although they might be under the surface – we decide what to eat, how much to exercise, how much to sleep, whether or not we will have that one extra beer, etc.
    Yet, it seems true that we probably encounter more “moral heart attacks” than physical heart attacks in our lives. Now, let’s grant that we get more practice at making these types of “major” moral decisions than we do at making major health decisions. And, we will grant that practice is needed is order for one to become an expert (why wouldn’t we?). Even so, I’m not sure this gets us to the conclusion that moral expertise isn’t rarified or is less rarified than medical expertise. Much like the person with little or no medical training will struggle to assist another who is having a heart attack, regardless of how many times he has seen someone have a heart attack, so too will the person with little or no moral training struggle to be of assistance in a moral emergency.
    The question is: do people put in enough time and effort in moral training, reflection, etc to make the encounter with these many moral problems fruitful?
    Well, the moral expert does. But, she is already an expert and therefore, only she and other experts (or experts in training) will benefit from the accessible expert-making material. I wonder whether the amount of access we all have to this material is relevant since we might not put that material to good use. That is, moral expertise still might be quite rarified if enough people aren’t putting in the requisite work.

  8. The first step, I suggest, is to determine the extent of the analogy between experts in other fields and moral experts. The analogy may not go far enough to put much weight on it. The reason of course is that in many other fields it is permissible for the non-expert to defer to the expert when making a decision. For instance, I may make investment decisions after consulting Warren Buffet (I wish), or car decisions after consulting an expert mechanic. Deferring to the expert, when adequate effort has been made to confirm that they are expert, will not impugn the decision-maker if, as it happens, things do not go well. My having consulted them will likely prove exculpating.
    In morality, it is not the same–not least because, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, a man cannot decide for me as he may wear my hat. It will not do as a moral explanation of my decision that I did what someone else told me, even if I aver–correctly–that he has made more and better moral decisions in the past than I have (and that there is reason to think this is not due to luck but to his moral understanding). I cannot evade the moral implications of my action though I took it on the best advice. The advice is not, of itself, exculpating. Or so I claim.
    I think the exculpating character of the advice/expert relation is true for many domains. If we look at some domains where this relationship gets muddier, we might cast some more light. Experts in aesthetic matters, such as art, music, wine tasting, etc., are I think possible candidates. This is an Aristotelian thought insofar as he spoke of developing “eyes to see” for domains where our “mere” eyesight would not serve. One naturally can see modern art in the sense of find it, move it, describe it but its appreciation–which we can think of as making correct judgments of some broad kind–requires a further kind of seeing. The thought, I suggest, is that this is something one could learn from an expert. If you don’t like the art example, use wine tasting or an aesthetic sensibility. This is not like your expert #1, because it is a power of discrimination not really a practical skill. The fit with expert #2 is poor because what the expert knows, and what the novice learns from him, is not the sort of thing that admits of justification. When the expert says that these colors go well, he will not justify it by reference to a theory, but neither will he justify it by reference to all the other colors that will not work. In this sense, he is not expert because he has more knowledge or that his knowledge is more fine-grained (which is the implication of the description of #2, I thought). It is notable that there is no real analogy with #3.
    So, my thought is that the idea of a moral expert is not well-placed for analogy with a technical expert in other domains. What I think can be recovered from the idea of an expert is that one could learn from an expert, though not in the sense of learn some body of knowledge. I suggest that there are at least three qualities such a moral expert could have: attention, judgment in cases of indeterminacy or novelty, and authority.
    Attention: the moral expert is someone whose moral attention is drawn to things that the non-expert is inclined to miss. These features may be features of context such as the urgency of deciding or the gravity of the situation. For instance he may know when the spirit of how something is done matters more than that it is done. I claim a great deal of wrongdoing arises not from malice or faulty reasoning but from thoughtlessness, viz. the failure to notice that moral consideration is required. Arendt discusses this in her discussion of Eichmann and the banality of evil. The moral expert is someone who notices the saliences of facts that evade most others. Attending (like noticing) is not a success word, like searching, and is therefore not something in which one might become expert by mastery of a technique. For this reason, he is unlike #1 and #2.
    Indeterminacy/Novelty: the moral expert has good judgement in the extension of concepts to indeterminate or new situations. This is not the same as being good at applying concepts, e.g. reliably discriminating amongst those that do and do not fall under the concept. Rather there will be times when moral concepts must be extended to new situations, such as the holocaust, which do not have a clear precedent. Or when the meanings of terms take on a moral valence which had hitherto not been understood as when “separate but equal” was determined to be unusable. Challenges of a similar kind may be presented by new technologies such as germline engineering. Of course, a lot of philosophical work is packed into the description of the expert as having ‘good judgement’. I take it this is some of what is intended in the description of #2. What is it to have good judgment of this kind? Well, I suggest that it is displayed when there is a harmony or organic unity between past and novel applications of the concept. It is notable that the explanation for one such judgement, like with the colors that go together, is not one that is likely to be explained by reference to theory or further facts. Rather, the expert will explain himself by pointing to the consistency/harmony/unity of the considerations he assembles for the application of the concept to the new situation. I would propose to treat hard cases under this rubric.
    Authority: the moral expert has authority which works to increase our confidence in the first two qualities. I think something of this idea is captured in #3, but the idea of action is somewhat misplaced. The quality of someone’s moral acuity–one reason for calling them an expert–need not be expressed in action, but may show itself in the fineness of his judgments. This will be especially true for someone whose authority emerges from what they are unwilling to consider doing, what for them is unthinkable.
    Authority has various origins. I think William Styron’s authority is expressed in his understanding of a soldier’s lot in his book A Tidewater Morning. The authority of Elias Canetti’s understanding of the evils of totalitarianism, group think and corruption of the individual in his book Crowds and Power stems in part from his own survival and escape from such systems. Speaking for myself, the seriousness and fairmindedness of Rawls’ work lifts it above another philosopher I admire, Thomas Nagel, whose tone sometimes becomes brittle because shrill. Moving along toward those lacking authority, there has always been something of the gadfly about Dworkin; and Singer is, to my ears, simply shallow. Shallowness and authority are inversely related, I suggest, and Singer is an example of someone who could meet the criteria in aspects of #1, #2 and #3 insofar as he is thoughtful, analytical, committed and so forth but his conclusions are morally incredible. That he does not see this is what I find shallow in him.
    In any case, the topic is very interesting, thanks for posting it.
    David.

  9. Pete –
    Yes, I actually favor the more rarified picture of moral expertise, and I think that you map out one of the better ways of defending it. I might add that there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of even the more ordinary moral judgments, just as there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of the more ordinary decisions about health. After all, many of the decisions you listed might have implications for our health, but are rarely (I think) about our health as such. Whether I decide to sleep longer has much more to do with whether I want to work on my dissertation in a groggy state, and less to do with some picture of overall bodily well-being. Similarly, most of the ostensibly “moral” decisions we make every day (e.g., whether I should simply ignore the panhandler or courteously refuse, whether I should respond to a friend’s email, etc.), are decided by my habits of thought or calculations of long-term interest rather than moral considerations per se. At least that would be another response worth considering.
    David-
    Really a great series of thoughts. Perhaps the non-exculpating character of the moral thinker’s expertise could be better captured in relationship of math teach to math student (Mark’s hunch might be right after all!). If I, playing the slave to the teacher’s Socrates, want to know what the side of a double square is, it is not enough to have the correct answer to the question. I need to see the reasons for that answer for myself (in some sense), as I am responsible for justifying that answer to myself. Moreover, this responsibility transcends any purely epistemic requirement that I understand the reasons in the right way just to qualify as a knower. Whether the “J” or the “+” in “JTB+” requires it of me, the fact also remains that my responsibilities as a student also require it of me. I don’t get points (the analogue to moral credit) simply by reciting the correct answer, even if it’s an answer I have on good authority. The responsibility is a quasi-moral one, built into my role as a student of mathematics.
    But again, I’m still bothered by the plausible suggestion (advanced very forcefully by the Confucian philosophers I favor) that one can’t really appreciate the reasons for doing *some* virtuous things without putting her trust in a moral authority in the first place. We practice doing X first, and then appreciate the reasons for doing X afterwards. This seems to answer an undeniable need that we would have of our moral experts, a need we should have even well into adulthood.
    Justin

  10. Nathan,
    Thanks for the link, unfortunately it exactly exemplifies what I find so incredible about Singer. Look at this quote:
    It is significant that Ryle says that “the honest man” is not an expert, and later he says the same of “the charitable man.” His conclusion would have had less initial plausibility if he had said “the morally good man.” Being honest and being charitable are often–though perhaps not as often as Ryle seems to think–comparatively simple matters, which we all can do, if we care about them. It is when, say, honesty clashes with charity (If a wealthy man overpays me, should I tell him, or give the money to famine relief?) that there is need for thought and argument. The morally good man must know how to resolve these conflicts of values.
    It is remarkable to me that he sees this example as at all vexed. A wealthy man has made a mistake and now you have what is not yours. You know it, you could rectify the matter and instead you think you will somehow absolve yourself by giving it to a good cause. It is not a matter of conflicting values, it is a matter that in keeping the money you will make yourself a thief. This is as clear a case of the ends justifying the means as one could imagine, which I would have thought was truistically out of court. Isn’t it obvious that it is not charity when you give what is not yours? So logically, the conflict is not even as he sets it out.
    David.

  11. Morality as most would likely concur, is relative. A Taliban judge may regard hand chopping as a moral remedy for theft, whereas such a punishment may be viewed by those in other cultures as an act of extreme immorality. In matters of health similarly, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine or a Chinese herbalist, even while ostensibly motivated by moral intent, may be viewed by allopathic practioners as quacks and threats to life and limb; a judgement based upon, what they regard rightly or wrongly, as their “higher expertise”.
    Some of the assertions made above relating to moral expertise etc often seem to imply some type of consensus; an absolute which, some might argue … simply does not exist.
    Furthermore, if we attempt to establish a connection between morality and utility, in order to put the former on firmer ground, matters don’t necessarily become any clearer. Sure, experience tells us that eating glass has certain predictable consequences. We also know with a certainty that the morally correct course of action when encountering a person suffering from dehydration is to offer liquid relief. However, given the complex nature of our technological world, we are faced with many blinds and deeceptions. For example, when a medical practioner is dealing with a patient, he or she may feel morally justified, based on medical protocols and expertise, in prescribing a COX-2 inhibitor such as Vioxx in order to relieve suffering. As we now know such an action may in fact precipitate an early death as a consequence of stroke or cardiac arrest. So in such an instance expertise falls short of meeting its higher moral goals due to flawed knowledge; an irony we seem to be increasingly encountering these days.
    I had more to add to this thread but time is short at this end. Thanks for the engaging contributions above … stimulating stuff!

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