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Is Moral Expertise Possible?—A Roundtable

Is moral expertise really a thing—normatively, theoretically, or metaphysically? All three major Western schools of moral philosophy seem to think so, including virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism.

Is Moral Expertise Possible?—A Roundtable
The Stages of Life (1835), an allegorical oil painting by the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note: Quillette asked two psychologists and two philosophers to reflect and comment on the possibility of attaining moral expertise.

I. Individual differences in moral expertise are real and important

Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist, and the author of The Mating Mind, Spent, Mate, and Virtue Signaling. You can follow him on Twitter @primalpoly.

Is moral expertise possible? Well, we certainly act like it is in our everyday judgments of other people. We judge some people as lacking moral expertise, insofar as we don’t expect very good moral decision-making from them, we don’t seek out their advice on moral issues, and we don’t praise them as moral role models. Such people include young children, low-IQ adults, older adults with dementia, and criminal psychopaths.

We don’t hold our toddlers to the same moral standards as we hold our teenagers, and we don’t expect as much from our teens as we do from our work colleagues. Moral expertise develops gradually in humans, and parents take pride in any moral levelling-up that they see in their kids. In some people, moral expertise never fully develops. If you have ever thought that it was wrong to execute a death-row inmate with an IQ below 70, on the grounds that they can’t understand the difference between right and wrong like normal people do, then you believe in individual differences in moral expertise.

We regard other kinds of people as embodying higher degrees of moral expertise, insofar as we hold them to higher moral standards, seek out their moral insights, and celebrate them as moral exemplars. In traditional cultures, moral expertise was often attributed to wise old women, shamans, sages, priests, gurus, philosophers, teachers, counselors, and scholars. In modern societies, we usually expect a fair amount of moral expertise—at least in their domain of competence—from credentialed professionals such as doctors, lawyers, judges, therapists, accountants, and engineers. If you can be thrown out of your white-collar guild for ethical misconduct, that’s a sign that your guild expects a certain level of moral expertise, not just a certain level of domain knowledge and practical competence.

Differences in moral expertise aren’t just individual-differences traits that are stable over the long term; they can also be transient states that vary over the short term. We expect people who are drunk to show less moral expertise than when they are sober. They will probably be more clumsy, impulsive, argumentative, sexually assertive, and violent.

This isn’t just about alcohol—it’s about anything that can temporarily undermine people’s moral judgment. As intuitive psychologists, we develop a nuanced understanding of how moral expertise ebbs and flows within individuals, across contexts, conditions, circumstances, and altered states of consciousness. Moral expertise, moral judgment, and moral behavior can be undermined by transient emotional states of pride, greed, lust, envy, hunger, anger, or fatigue. Bad traffic can lead to impatience, road rage, and unethically aggressive driving. Moral expertise can be handicapped by medical conditions such as pain, fever, delirium, stroke, anesthesia, and the side-effects of medication. Most major mental disorders—including schizophrenia, bipolar mania, borderline personality disorder, and psychopathy—undermine moral judgment and moral expertise in various ways. Psychotic people often show severely impaired moral expertise, which can make them a danger to themselves and others. Crazy doesn’t always mean evil, but they’re correlated.

Apart from traits and states, moral expertise also differs across domains, contexts, and cultures in ways that every worldly adult understands. A psychologist who develops expertise about research ethics may not have any expertise about the everyday moral dilemmas faced by street cops, investigative journalists, or Air Force drone pilots. A Silicon Valley tech employee who knows how to behave at a cybersecurity conference may not know how to behave in the Orgy Dome at Burning Man. An Australian who knows how to behave in Melbourne may not know how to behave in a Japanese business deal, dinner party, funeral, or brothel.

Different cultures and subcultures have different moral norms, values, ideals, and practices. Cross-cultural variation in moral norms doesn’t imply that morality is meaningless, any more than cross-linguistic variation in words implies that language is meaningless. A veteran expat who’s lived in five countries might speak five languages and might be a moral expert in five cultures—which is a lot more moral expertise than a xenophobe who’s stayed in their home village since birth.

So, descriptively, we act as if moral expertise varies across people, states, domains, and cultures in ways that every civilized adult finds obvious and uncontroversial. But is moral expertise really a thing—normatively, theoretically, or metaphysically? All three major Western schools of moral philosophy seem to think so, including virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism.

Virtue ethicists such as Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and St. Thomas Aquinas focus on cultivating moral expertise in the form of specific virtues, such as temperance, courage, humility, magnanimity, truthfulness, stoicism, and wisdom. They also attack vices that represent various forms of moral immaturity, short-sightedness, or selfishness, such as self-indulgence, cowardice, vanity, stinginess, deceit, fragility, and foolishness. As a normative ethical system, virtue ethics is closely tied to the descriptive psychology of how we judge individual differences in moral expertise, whether in ourselves or in others. Virtue ethicists try to grow their moral expertise throughout their whole lives.

Some Eastern traditions believe that moral expertise continues to grow even after death. Hinduism can be understood as a kind of extended virtue ethics—a soul’s moral expertise develops through thousands of reincarnations, life after life, as governed by the principle of karma, embodying higher and higher levels of punya (merit). In Buddhism, the ultimate moral expertise is attained by bodhisattvas who reach nirvana (potential escape from the endless cycles of reincarnation and suffering), but who stick around out of compassion to save other sentient beings, by teaching them to cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path (a list of eight key virtues).

Deontologists such as Moses, Immanuel Kant, and Roger Scruton believe in universal moral rules such as “thou shalt not kill” or “never lie” or “make things beautiful,” which they believe come from divine commandments, categorical imperatives, or cultural traditions, respectively. These moral rules are not self-evident to everyone, but require moral expertise to learn, recognize, interpret, and apply. Jewish scholars have been arguing for millennia (for example, in the Talmud) about how to interpret and apply the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Some rabbinical students show more moral insight than others, and they may become eminent rabbis whose moral expertise is sought out by everyone in their synagogue. Catholics likewise respect a hierarchy of moral expertise among deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes. Papal infallibility is basically moral expertise turned up to 11. And, of course, a Christian’s level of moral expertise determines whether he spends eternity in Heaven or Hell.

The most important secular version of deontology is found not in moral philosophy but in law. American law, for example, presupposes a hierarchy of moral expertise from ordinary citizens through law students, lawyers, law professors, district court judges, circuit court judges, and supreme court judges. There’s also the deontology system of legislators who write the laws, many of whom were trained as lawyers. Compared to the judicial and legislative branches of government, deontological moral philosophers have basically zero influence. Deontological moral expertise in secular societies is highly correlated, for better or worse, with legal expertise and political power.

Consequentialists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Derek Parfit, and Peter Singer believe that morally good actions are those that tend to produce good outcomes, whether or not they cultivate individual virtues or obey deontological rules. The leading modern form of consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which advocates doing the greatest good for the greatest number of sentient beings, including not just humans but also other animals, and not just the current generation but also future generations. At the individual level, this requires a high degree of rational compassion (that is, intelligent, well-informed moral expertise, not just emotional empathy). At the policy level, this requires a lot of expected value calculation, cost/benefit reasoning, skepticism about “virtue signaling,” and caution about the possible unintended consequences of trying to do good.

For example, the Effective Altruism movement is grounded in utilitarian ethics, reason, and evidence. Its concept of moral expertise is fairly light on principles (just do the most good you can), but heavy on explicit factual knowledge about how the world really works, what other sentient beings really want, and what you can really do. For Effective Altruists, moral expertise is very domain-specific, and requires a huge amount of empirical knowledge and theoretical insight about each domain under consideration. It boils down to empirical expertise at every level of analysis, from the high-level observation that other sentient beings exist and can experience good or bad consequences, to the low-level details about the costs and benefits of specific policy interventions. The more you know about the world, the more moral expertise you can develop and employ.

If randomized controlled trials have not been conducted to determine whether or not a drug works, then no doctor has the moral expertise to prescribe it, because they can’t evaluate its likely costs, benefits, and side-effects. If a politician doesn’t know anything about blockchain technology, smart contracts, or consensus protocols, they don’t have any relevant moral expertise when trying to regulate the utility of cryptocurrencies. If a virtue ethicist is unfamiliar with the psychology studies about what empirically leads to eudaimonia (happiness, welfare, flourishing), then they don’t have any moral expertise relevant to giving life advice to others.

In sum, individual differences in moral expertise are real and important, and we all know it. This is true descriptively, in how we judge the moral expertise of other humans. It is also true normatively, in the concepts of moral expertise promoted by the three main ethical meta-theories.

II. We are on our own

Oliver Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at Notre Dame and a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @olivertraldi.

Are there moral experts? Obviously, there are experts in other areas. We trust plumbers with our toilets, and we trust dentists with our teeth. Sometimes those we take to be experts turn out to be incompetent or self-interested charlatans. But that doesn’t undermine our faith in the possibility of expertise. Yet, to some, the situation seems different with moral expertise. When it comes to right and wrong, they think, there might not be experts at all.

Evaluating this claim requires resolving a more fundamental (and contentious) issue: whether or not there are moral facts, or alternately, whether or not there are true and false moral propositions. If there are moral facts or true moral propositions, then the moral expert is just the person whose knowledge of those facts and propositions meets a certain threshold relative to others. The position that there are moral facts or true moral propositions is known by philosophers as moral realism. I am a moral realist, and so I think that, at least possibly, there are moral experts, too.

However, this does not settle everything. Apart from the question of whether or not it is possible to have moral experts, there are at least five other pressing questions about moral expertise, or really about expertise in any domain. There is the definition question: What does it mean to be an expert? There is the identification question: How does a novice find the experts? There is the deference question: Should we simply believe what the experts tell us? There is the disagreement question: What should we make of the fact that experts often disagree with one another? And there is the matching question: How well do the actual experts—by the given definition of expertise—match up with the people credentialed as such by society and its institutions?

Philosophers have offered two kinds of definition or conception of expertise. According to the first, expertise is a matter of authority, and authority is established by a track record of getting things right. This in turn provides a specific kind of answer to the deference question: plausibly, if someone is more likely to get something right than I am, I should put aside my own view and listen to theirs. According to the second conception, expertise is the ability to provide a certain kind of advice or assistance in reasoning. So, an expert might not be significantly more reliable than I am, but if I talk to them while I’m thinking through the issue, they’ll point out some things for me to think about, or point me toward some more important concerns. Rather than just being more reliable, such an advisor makes me more reliable.

The questions that most interest me are the identification and matching questions. Let’s start with identification. Say I think I’m probably wrong about most moral matters. Maybe I just judge myself to be a thoughtless, selfish, cruel, or even evil person, so I need to follow someone else’s lead. Well, by judging myself that way, I seem to have undercut my ability to find an expert in the first place, at least under the authority conception of expertise. Identifying someone as an authority in moral matters requires identifying them as tending to be correct about moral matters. But since I don’t think I tend to be correct about moral matters, I’m not in a position to make such an identification. So, I’m in a bit of trouble: Finding an expert seems like it’s just as hard as being right to begin with.

In many domains of inquiry this isn’t a problem, because they involve empirical predictions. I don’t trust myself to predict the weather, but I do trust myself to see the weather when it’s happening. So I can evaluate a meteorologist’s predictions against what actually happened. Does such a possibility exist when it comes to moral expertise? Not directly, but perhaps indirectly. You might feel that you know better about what’s right and wrong once you’ve actually done something and seen how it felt, or deliberated about what to do for a long time. You can see which people are able immediately to come up with the same answer that you might come up with in retrospect or after a great deal of deliberation. Using your future and not present self as a metric, you might be able to find an expert.

What about the matching question? To answer it, we need to think about who our society sees as moral experts. In some domains, these socially approved experts might be political or religious leaders. In others, they might be more local figures—bulwarks of the community. The parts of society in which I spend the most time are highly educated progressive circles, and my impression is that the socially approved moral experts in such circles are various kinds of journalists, celebrities, and consultants. Such people might feature in widely shared videos explaining why some moral issue is straightforward, and their books might be required reading for school or work. They develop the moral language and concepts in which people like me are trained to participate.

Personally, I do not think the masters of that kind of moral language are real moral experts. For the most part, when I deliberate at length about the advice they tend to give, it starts to seem less and less correct. There are often financial incentives for their moral teachings—always a sign that an expert may not be trustworthy, like a car dealer who stands to profit from a sale. And on measures of morality where I do feel confident in my judgments, like small-scale instances of interpersonal kindness and generosity, these teachers don’t seem to perform very well, and sometimes even worse than average. For these reasons, I don’t think my corner of society has done a good job at identifying genuine moral expertise. This leaves us all, for better or for worse, to figure it out for ourselves.

III. An apology for moral experts

Spencer Case has a PhD in philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerJayCase.

Some jokes are portals to philosophy. A friend of mine told one such joke about 10 years ago, when we were both graduate students. A student asked him why he was teaching ethics if he was, by his own self-deprecating admission, a very morally flawed person. He replied: “You don’t have to be a triangle to teach geometry.” The joke highlights the fact that these kinds of expertise aren’t intuitively analogous. Mathematical expertise can be a purely intellectual affair. Moral expertise, if there is such a thing, doesn’t seem to be like this. We expect the moral expert to be motivated, even transformed, by his knowledge.

This observation isn’t new. In ancient Greece, Socrates argued that no one willingly does wrong—evil actions harm the soul and no one wants to be harmed if they can avoid it. The argument is dubious, but the position is plausible, anyway. It’s puzzling to think that anyone would prefer a course of action that he didn’t think was in some sense better than the alternatives. Aristotle argued that we suffer from weakness of will when we succumb to temptation. But in the end, he mostly agrees with Socrates that all evil stems from ignorance: if we really know that an action is evil—and we have the proper internal access to that knowledge (which weakness of will blocks)—then we’ll be motivated not to do it.

Some people, taking inspiration from 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, have argued that this motivation is a liability for those who believe in moral knowledge. If knowledge is a mental state that accurately represents the world, then intuitively it should be possible to possess it without having any particular motivational state. Since this apparently isn’t possible, it’s doubtful that moral assertions attempt to describe the world at all. Perhaps, instead, they’re expressions of our feelings or attempts to manipulate others. If that’s all moral talk amounts to, it doesn’t seem to leave room for moral knowledge, let alone moral experts.

Let’s see if I can make some room. One response to this argument is to embrace the possibility of amoralists: people who can make genuine moral judgments without being moved to do what they judge to be right. Philosophers have spilt oceans of ink debating the possibility of amoralists in the second half of the 20th century. My view is that they’re possible, though psychologically rare. But I have a harder time believing that moral experts could be amoralists.

Consider this thought experiment. According to Milton’s epic 17th century poem, Paradise Lost, Satan used to be the angel Lucifer before things went south, so to speak. Presumably, Lucifer possessed enough moral knowledge to count as a moral expert. Is it possible that he retained all that knowledge as the Prince of Darkness? If he wanted to give you sound moral advice—not that he would, mind you—could he do it as well as any angel? I’m inclined to say no: the Devil can’t be a moral expert. He must have lost some moral knowledge in the fall. If that’s right, then there must be limits to his ability as a tempter. You can’t reliably lead people astray without knowing the right path yourself.

But I’m not sure about this. Whether or not we can conceive of Satan as a perverse kind of moral expert, we should expect that most moral experts will be motivated by their knowledge. That’s because the subject matter of their knowledge is normative—that is, it directly concerns how we ought to behave. That’s what sets moral knowledge apart from mathematical knowledge and other forms of knowledge. I’d add that moral knowledge is partly a matter of skill at living well. Like any skill—archery, carpentry, chess playing, or what have you—it can only be acquired, and maintained, with practice. Someone who doesn’t care about what he ought to do isn’t likely to have acquired and maintained the skill.

Another charge against moral experts is that if they existed, they would be unappealing. Susan Wolf defends this position in her 1982 paper, “Moral Saints.” A saint, according to Wolf, is “a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.” Such a person would certainly count as a moral expert, though being a moral expert doesn’t require perfection. Wolf imagines the moral saint to be someone who sacrifices all aspects of life to virtue. He’s too busy feeding the hungry or raising money for Oxfam to have hobbies like reading literature or playing the oboe. Wolf worries that this kind of character might have to be “dull-witted or humorless or bland” or even “nauseating.”

This is unconvincing. There’s no good reason to think that the maximally virtuous person would have to be so narrow. How could he be effective in his various charitable activities if others find him so unlikeable? And Wolf never tells us what exactly this person would do to raise money for Oxfam. Perhaps he would be doing stand-up comedy or playing music (though a truly virtuous person would choose the harmonica over the oboe). In short, we have every reason to think of the moral saint as a well-rounded person, and not some insufferable do-gooder.

There might not be any moral saints—Florence Nightingale is the best mortal approximation I can think of—but there are plenty of people who are skilled at living life. There are no perfect experts in any domains. Mathematicians, scientists, and doctors are all fallible. All expertise is a matter of degree. The more you live and learn from mistakes, the more moral expertise you acquire. I’m more of a moral expert now than I was when I was 20 or 30. I hope this trajectory continues until I’m about 65. If I decline a bit after that, then who but a true moral expert could hold it against me?

IV. Moral expertise is not possible, but a kind of moral wisdom is

Bo Winegard is an essayist and holds a PhD in social psychology. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, expertise is “a high level of knowledge or skill.” We can subdivide knowledge (and skill) into the rational (explicit) and the practical (implicit).

Rational knowledge refers to knowledge of which a person is conscious and which he can articulate. For example, an expert on the French Revolution is a person who knows a lot about that topic, including the details of obscure documents and debates (such as the status of current scholarship on Furet’s interpretation of the causes of the French Revolution). He can answer questions and is often aware of the source of his knowledge, and he can write a book explaining his knowledge to other people.

Practical knowledge refers to knowledge of which a person is largely unaware and which he cannot articulate (or can only articulate with great difficulty). Often this is called a skill. For example, an expert at batting in baseball is a person who is exceptionally good at hitting balls (a person who is, let us say, in the top 0.1 percent of hitting ability). He can hit a fastball, a curveball, a slider. He can play successfully in Major League baseball. But he probably cannot describe how he hits so effectively. Since humans are curious and loquacious creatures, he might try to explain his ability. He might even write a book about it. But his expertise is ultimately ineffable, requiring hours upon hours of practice not conversation. (One cannot learn to hit a baseball by reading about it.)

Expertise in rational or practical knowledge requires a relatively objective criterion—a measure of success with which one can compare relative degrees of expertise. An expert sprinter in 1950 would not be an expert today. An expert physicist at a high school would not be an expert at MIT. So, we can say that expertise is a high (or unusual) level of knowledge, either rational or practical, in a domain with a relatively objective criterion.

Can somebody achieve this kind of expertise in morality? The answer, I think, is no. Whether it be rational or practical knowledge, morality is too subjective (perhaps more specifically, too perspective-dependent) and not variable enough to allow for expertise. The criteria for moral knowledge are not objective enough to measure effectively. What appears morally laudable from one group’s perspective may appear morally heinous from another’s.

Consider this example: John Sampson, a devout Christian, believes that abortion is a moral abomination. He quits his lucrative job at Google to write essays denouncing it. He works indefatigably, but because he quit his job, his family has to move from their beloved home in Northern California to a smaller house in Tennessee. His kids are distraught about leaving their high-school friends, but John contends that this is a small price to pay to end the abhorrent practice of abortion.

Did John do the right thing? The answer will depend upon one’s views of abortion. Those who reject the claim that “abortion is a moral abomination” would likely argue that John’s behavior was not morally laudable, whereas those who accept the claim in the introductory phrase may believe that what John did was praiseworthy.

This dependence upon perspective is not unique to a few supercharged moral issues; it is ubiquitous in the domain of moral judgement. Without taxing one’s imagination, one could probably forward hundreds or even thousands of similar examples. For instance: (1) a person divorces his wife because she voted for Trump; (2) a person sabotages a laboratory that conducts experiments on animals; (3) a person protests nightly and loudly in front of a store that sells pornography, driving it out of business. Moral judgements of each person would vary widely, which makes the objective measurement of moral knowledge nearly impossible.

Let’s say we devise a test of moral knowledge and give it to 20 liberals, 20 centrists, and 20 conservatives to score. My guess is that the correlation among their scores would be so low that the test would be completely worthless. From this we can conclude that we lack measurable, objective criteria against which to test and compare potential experts in morality. We can, of course, distinguish the morally obtuse from normal humans, but we cannot distinguish between moral experts and moral extremists because one tribe’s expert is another tribe’s extremist.

Attitudes toward abolitionists in the antebellum North have varied widely across history (and geography). Before the 1860s, they were often viewed as pernicious radicals who provoked antipathy in the South and railed against reasonable compromise (see, for example, James G. Randall’s The Civil War and Reconstruction). Today, they are often viewed as prescient moral heroes who courageously fought against the grievous evil of slavery. I sympathize with this latter view, as most of us probably do, but we should recognize, at minimum, that many morally decent, sane, and thoughtful people have disagreed, arguing that slavery, though incontrovertibly evil, would have slowly perished without the “irrational” enthusiasm of the abolitionists, which made more productive compromises impossible.

The only realistic way to avoid subjectivism is to make moral questions incredibly vague or broad. For example, one might ask, “Is it good to increase the amount of justice in the world?” or “Is it good to help people who are less fortunate than you are?” or “Is it bad to kill innocent people?” It is quite likely that our 60 test scorers would have high inter-rater reliability on this kind of a test, but then the moral reasoners would vary so little that it would be difficult to distinguish an expert from a lay person. It would be rather like looking for an expert at tic-tac-toe: Too many people know the optimal strategy so there is no such thing as expertise. (Although we could certainly distinguish between children and adults, just as we could with moral judgments.)

However, although there is no rational moral expertise, and probably no practical moral expertise either, there is practical moral wisdom. So far, I’ve been discussing rational forms of moral knowledge: What does a person explicitly think about a particular moral dilemma or behavior? But, moral philosophers aside, what most of us care most about is not rational moral expertise, but practical moral knowledge like actual behavior. The professor who writes eloquent books about utilitarianism and charity might be persuasive or provocative, but if he behaves like a jerk, we are likely to have a dim view of his moral capacities.

Although morality is inevitably subjective, we do share many moral values and intuitions. We know that we should be nice to the less fortunate, that we should help the old lady across the street, that we shouldn’t cheat on our exam, that we shouldn’t steal from the store. Many of our moral failures are not caused by cognitive deficiencies or a lack of knowledge; they are caused by weak will, by succumbing to temptation, by akrasia. These shortcomings cannot be rectified by reading Peter Singer or Henry Sidgwick. But they can be corrected through effort and maturity. As we age and strive to do the right thing while also witnessing the pain that our temporary lapses and moral failures have caused, we can become morally wise. This moral wisdom is a kind of practical wisdom—it is the ability to make good decisions.

We can, therefore, point to morally laudable people in our lives—those who are better able to adhere to their own internal norms than others. These people are morally wise. But their ability is not so rare (or so objective) that we could appropriately refer to it as expertise. And this is to our good fortune because it means that moral wisdom is less rare than we might believe after glancing at Twitter or reading an article about politics. Moral wisdom is, in fact, the rule, and moral depravity or ignorance is the exception, at least in healthy adults.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated that Hume was a 17th Century philosopher. Apologies for the error.

NOTE: You can read four readers’ responses to this discussion here.

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