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Is Moral Expertise Possible? Four Responses

As long as there have been philosophers, there has been thinking about morality.

· 12 min read
Is Moral Expertise Possible? Four Responses
The Brothers Karamazov (1958), directed by Richard Brooks for MGM. Alamy 

NOTE: Below are responses from four Quillette readers to our recent roundtable discussion.

I. Moral experts’ understanding and skills

Nathan Nobis is a professor of philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta GA. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanNobis and find his website here.

Are anyone’s ethical judgments better than anyone else’s? Yes, of course. Someone who believes that, for example, there’s nothing morally wrong with murdering or assaulting people for fun has worse moral judgment, at least on these matters, than someone who denies this. This is common sense, despite a common insistence that ethics are “subjective” and “just opinions.”

Now, are some people better at supporting their judgments, especially on complex, controversial, and pressing ethical issues? Again, yes. Some people better understand the issues—they are familiar with the relevant facts and arguments; they know the objections; they know the best responses to those objections. They may also know the historical and cultural context of the issue, and might be better able to predict where the issue is heading.

Such people might justifiably be called ethics experts. Experts know what they are talking about, which makes them authorities on the matter. Their judgments on the issue are more likely to be justified or correct compared to someone who is not an expert.

Expertise in one area of ethics does not make someone an expert in other areas. For instance, expertise on the ethics of capital punishment does not necessarily entail expertise on the ethics of gun control. There are experts on ethical decision-making or ethical reasoning in general, but that means they are familiar with the kinds of considerations that would be relevant to understanding and evaluating specific ethical issues. Expertise on narrow issues requires doing the work of finding out the best arguments people have made on the issues—expertise is not a priori omniscience.

Ethics experts’ understanding is based on the skills they have been taught, usually in a degree program, and that they can teach to others. These are skills gained and honed by reflective practice. These skills include:

  • identifying exact conclusions;
  • identifying stated premises;
  • an understanding of the logical forms of arguments so as to identify unstated premises that are often essential to arguments but are often not explicit;
  • identifying claims that can have multiple meanings (for example, “life” as in “when life begins”), and distinguishing those meanings, to enable clear communication, so exact claims can be evaluated as true or false, reasonable or not;
  • evaluating premises as justified or not, including using counterexamples to evaluate proposed ethical generalizations. For example, “If a being isn’t ‘rational,’ then it cannot have moral rights” or “If you didn’t cause someone’s problem, then you are never obligated to help them.”

Skills in logic and argument help ethical experts keep their cool when thinking about emotive ethical issues. Experts employ systematic frameworks with which to engage issues, and these enable them to teach the material in ways that others will understand.

Ethics experts are familiar with basic concepts of ethics and use them to think about issues in more precise ways, compared to people who lack this understanding. For example, “morally right” can mean either “not wrong” (or morally permissible) or “wrong to not do” (morally obligatory). Alternatively, lacking a moral right to do something does not mean that you cannot be morally obligated to do it.

Ethics experts will be familiar with all sorts of other novel concepts that are useful for understanding and evaluating ethical issues. In (good) ethics classes, students learn about these concepts and practice using them—this is how they learn what ethics expertise consists of.

Ethics experts are also familiar with ethical theories, or general explanations of what makes wrong actions wrong and what makes permissible actions permissible. Understanding the criteria required for an action to fall into these categories—and their strengths and weaknesses—is useful for understanding and discussing practical issues, even if there’s no consensus (yet?) on which theory is best.

Ethics expertise is attained in degrees. An undergraduate student who has taken a good course on the ethics of abortion is closer to being an expert on the topic than an untrained person. But the student is less of an expert than the instructor since the instructor knows and understands more. The instructor can apply their learning and skills to new questions and new arguments that they haven’t yet encountered; the student’s level of expertise might only allow him to engage current arguments, although with a much deeper level of understanding and insight than the average person.

However, expertise can be corrupted, including in ethics: financial, political, religious, “tribal,” and other distorting interests and influences can sway someone from having a genuinely fair, balanced, and deep understanding of an issue. As a result, being an ethical person is often hard—resisting temptation isn’t easy, but that doesn’t preclude having the understanding and skills of an expert, even on issues we act wrongly about.

Pseudo-expertise exists also. People can present as experts when they are really not, and people who aren’t experts can be duped by them. So, non-experts can be convinced by other non-experts that they are all experts on issues when they all really are not. Where’s the Dunning-Kruger effect when you need it?

Concerns about corrupt experts and pseudo-experts are likely the most pressing practical problems with ethical expertise. What can be done about them? If you are reading this, you can become an ethics expert yourself on your issue(s) of choice. That will give you the understanding, skills, and authority to undermine the non-experts. The best response to non- and pseudo-ethical expertise is genuine ethical expertise. Be part of the “tribe” seeking that—on this point, ethics experts would agree.

II. Moral expertise and relativity

Michael C. Anderson Ph.D. writes about politics and morality. His fourth book, which addresses the dangerous moral imbalance in the United States, will be out in early fall. You can find him at

If we define moral expertise as the acquired knowledge and understanding of absolute human morality, then moral expertise is not possible. There is no absolute morality; morality is relative and defined by public opinion in a culture. In addition, morality is dynamic and changes over time.

Before agriculture, humans lived as nomads in small groups, moving about in search of food. Morality was the behavior required to protect the group and families within it. For example, group members who continually caused problems were expelled or killed. They were immoral actors. Those who acted in the best interests of the group were respected as moral people.

A variation on morality exists in human groups based on genetics and environmental influence. In the early days of hominids, man became exposed to changing ecosystems as a result of his migrations. An adaptation problem surfaced because different environments required different behavioral skillsets. An environment that was food-plentiful was nothing like one that was food-scarce; each required a different adaptation. Because natural selection is a slow process, nature had to develop a method of behavioral adaption that was more plastic and could respond faster to environmental changes. The solution came from polymorphism, a term from genetics, which refers to the expression of a gene in different forms. We’re all familiar with differences in human eye color which is the result of polymorphism at work. Polymorphism also determines the distribution of human personality characteristics. For example, some people are extroverts and some introverts.

Morality is a polymorphically determined behavior. Some people desire change, take joy in new experiences, and have an emotional connection to equality. Others prefer the status quo, stick to traditions, and view authority and loyalty as more important. These are different moral attitudes because they generate different behaviors.

A food-plentiful environment was better managed by conservative people because it took organization and some sort of hierarchical structure to protect and manage the food choices. A food-scarce environment was better managed by those who were motivated toward new experiences because they were driven to explore. These behaviors were not political because politics did not exist. They were merely different attitudes that helped contribute to consensus decision-making.

With the advent of agriculture, individual and family morality were subverted by the morality of the larger society. Social and political hierarchies arose because the wealthy or those with leadership skills gained the respect of others. Governments evolved to manage the public economy and maintain civil order. For most of recorded history, before the Enlightenment, societies were authoritarian. That is to say they were power hierarchies which did not grant rights to the common man. Those without influence lived a Darwinian life and struggled to survive. In the West after antiquity, morality was largely defined by the Catholic Church.

The Enlightenment refocused human society on the individual as opposed to the group. Individual rights became an objective of government and individuals began to engage in politics and vote. Elected officials were forced to pay attention to the demands of their constituents if they wanted to stay in office. Political parties arose to reflect the morality of their constituencies. Liberal parties represented equality and the state’s role in helping to achieve that end. Conservative parties represented tradition, small government, and liberty.

The nation-state is the genesis of public morality and the vehicle for debating public morality is politics. Citizens choose to elect candidates whose morality matches their own. Once elected, candidates assume the responsibility to shift the public morality in the direction of their constituents.

Public morality derives from a consensus of the people and changes over time. Individual rights, a fundamental moral issue in the Western world, have been expanded in recent decades because the majority decided they should be expanded. In 1970, gay people were considered deviant and dangerous. Twenty years later, they were accepted as people who happened to have a different sexual orientation. Being gay was no longer immoral in the eyes of the government and the majority of the people.

There will always be people who find aspects of the public morality unacceptable. Often, that is due to a person’s moral creed, based on their religion or the traditions they follow. Those traditions do not easily accept change. Others resist expanding social tolerance because of the basic human tendency to reject others who look or act differently.

As long as there have been philosophers, there has been thinking about morality. For most of the time since the Greeks, the focus has been on absolute morality—the right way to live. Later, institutions like the Catholic Church defined morality for us. If we were Catholics, we accepted the dogma.

In modern times, when religion has less influence and individual views have dominated, morality has become relative, reflecting the variations in human morality that appeared a million years ago. If we define moral expertise as the understanding of factors that influence human morality, such as genetics, the environment, one’s culture, and the public morality, we can say there is moral expertise. The value of that expertise is that it can be disseminated to those who want to understand how to arrive at a moral philosophy that works best for them.

III. Moral expertise can be found in great art

Joe Donovan is a tax lawyer practicing in Boston. He has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a lifelong interest in the earlier and later philosophies of Wittgenstein. You can follow him on Twitter @Javierdontno.

The mind stumbles on the word “expertise.” It seems to imply a skill honed over time. If it does imply a skill honed over time, does this imply in turn that the moral expert must also be an exemplary person?

Such people are hard to find. The Dalai Lama may be one. He can demonstrate to us both a simple and intuitive moral code—“Be compassionate to all sentient beings and strive for non-attachment as a release from suffering.” Further, it is hard to find anything in his life that suggests he has betrayed his own moral principles in any material way. And he has had to make real, practical decisions in a harsh world, most notably regarding the Communist Party of China.

“Expertise” seems also to imply that there is a body of moral knowledge extrinsic to us that we can absorb and propagate. But what is the source of this knowledge? And how do we know when we have found the correct source? For Buddhists, the source is a species of divine revelation, refined by what the Dalai Lama would characterize, I think, as quasi-scientific exploration and validation over the centuries.

This source of moral knowledge has been debated by some of our finest public intellectuals. In Dublin, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson drew an enthusiastic crowd of thousands as they debated this very question. Harris, the meditating atheist, seemed to fall back, as a secularist must, on a form of utilitarianism. Peterson, on the other hand, tries to trace the source of morality to evolutionary biology and DNA. But he also appears to suggest that the moral trend embedded in DNA is a consequence of some form of intelligent design. This makes him a deist, even though he maintains that if he were a believer in God, he would have to spend the rest of his life cowering under his bed.

In a characteristically eccentric way, Peterson tries to convince us that there is an absolute good because the existence of absolute evil is undeniable. (For example, the Auschwitz guard who made a prisoner carry a heavy sack of salt across the yard and back just for sport.) Peterson appeals to our sense of yin and yang, arguing that there must be an incontrovertible good (perhaps never fully realized) if there is such incontrovertible evil.

There is a way out of the dilemma posed by the central question, insofar as it asks us to look for moral paragons, and it lies in the great works of art and literature. These are not didactic but nonetheless contain moral lessons arising from concrete situations and their resolution, and we can benefit from these moral lessons without any expectation that the artist is himself a paragon of virtue. Instead, his expertise lies in his ability to explore the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and the gray areas in between.

Robert Duval’s film The Apostle was a labor of love. He starred in it, directed and produced it, and invested his own money in the project. He told the story of a fundamentalist Christian preacher in the South dedicated to spreading joy among the poor and mostly black people of his parish. But we learn that, under another name, he previously murdered someone in a fit of sexual jealousy. At the end of the film, the apostle is working on a chain gang, a shotgun at his back, but still an authentic believer.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky offered a morality play in which the complex players are not reducible to representatives of a particular virtue or vice. Nevertheless, it is possible to rank the characters from the most to the least moral: (1) Alyosha the saint; (2) Ivan the intellectual sophisticate, from whose inspiration the Grand Inquisitor was born; (3) Dmitri, who is wild and impetuous and undisciplined, and yet lovable in spite of it all; and (4) Smerdyakov, the cunning, smirking parricide.

In Alyosha, Dostoevsky serves up a moral paragon who sometimes seems almost insipid but never quite crosses that line. He faces real moral dilemmas and is reflexively honest with everyone, even when he tells them things they do not want to hear. To be a moral paragon, it is not enough to “be nice to everyone.” On the contrary, that philosophy of life may lead to its own kind of private hell. Dostoevsky set out the struggle between faith and reason. He does not need to tell us which should prevail, but he shows us.

We do not need to believe that Dostoevsky himself was a moral paragon to benefit from his work. Like most of us, he was a deeply flawed individual, but like all great artists, he was an “expert” on the choices that we must make between good and evil.

IV. We only have ourselves

Georges Mercier is a graduate student in political theory at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris.

In a cynical sense, the professionalisation of moral philosophy over the last few decades indicates that “moral expertise” must be real. If it’s not, then a lot of scholars and publishers are wasting their lives on an illusion. But in another sense, moral expertise is an illusion, because we no longer believe in the things that made the idea intelligible in the first place.

Let me begin by distinguishing between three kinds of moral expertise: scholarly, empirical, and ontological expertise.

Scholarly expertise refers to the knowledge and thought accrued by people who have spent a long time researching, studying, and writing works of moral philosophy. Philosophy professors certainly know more about the implications of certain questions and the ideas debated in seminal texts and commentaries than most. In plain language, these people can justifiably be called experts on Kant’s moral philosophy, Bentham’s utility principle, Rawls’s difference principle, and so on.

Empirical expertise assumes that “moralities” exist and that they can be empirically studied. This is concerned with understanding how and why people in different times and places have behaved in such-and-such a way. For instance, why have some nations embraced the notion of universal human rights while others have not? The task of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians is to answer questions like these.

Ontological expertise is concerned with determining morality itself, a topic that moral philosophy professors are supposed to be better at investigating than the rest of us. It is in this sense that expertise is illusory. After Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, few people really believe humans are exceptional or that what we currently value is a reliable guide to the only way to behave.

Sequentially, we’ve learned that we are not the centre of the universe, we are not the centre of earthbound life, and we are not in control of our own consciousness. So where does morality come from? We may be uniquely intelligent animals, but rationality is a passenger to and not the driver of our thoughts and actions.

Moral philosophy persists, nonetheless. Just like any profession, it has its own codes and vernacular, and these require a belief in the reality of “moral expertise.” We legitimise the idea of moral philosophy as soon as we begin to debate it—the conversation itself becomes the point, not the reality to which it is supposed to relate. The process is a self-reinforcing mechanism.

But belief in moral expertise also fills a profound human need. We want our most deeply held practices and beliefs to be supported by something more secure than the frailty of our own existences. Perhaps talk of “moral expertise” simply reflects an inability to let go of our childish desire for a father figure—a moral authority to whom we can look for guidance. But the truth is that we really only have ourselves and our solidarity with one another. Is that not enough?

You can hear the four participants in the original Quillette roundtable discuss the topic further on the Micro-Digressions podcast here.

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