Moral Testimony and Moral Epistomology

Ethics, Vol. 120, No. 1, pg. 94–127, 2009.

Alison Hill


I am going to defend pessimism about moral testimony; that is, I am going to argue that there are circumstances in which you have no reason to trust moral testimony (in fact, you have reason not to put your trust in it), even if your interlocutor is reliable and trustworthy regarding the matter in question, and you know her to be so. But I will begin by agreeing with the optimists: I will simply accept that you can acquire moral knowledge through testimony. This claim has been defended recently, and I have nothing to add to those arguments. But if optimists are right that trusting moral testimony can give us moral knowledge, their question is pressing: what reasons could there be not to trust moral testimony or defer to moral experts? I will answer this question by taking a new look at moral epistemology. I will argue that a centrally important concept in moral epistemology is not moral knowledge, but what I call “moral understanding,” and that the latter relates to testimony and to expertise quite differently from the former.

I set out my conception of moral understanding and explain how it differs from moral knowledge (both knowledge that p, and knowledge why p) in Section II. In Section III, I argue that moral understanding is extremely important: it plays a vital role in good character and in morally worthy action. I then show (in Sec. IV) that, given the importance of our acquiring and using moral understanding, we have strong reasons neither to trust moral testimony nor to defer to moral experts, though taking moral advice is both acceptable and often very useful. Ethical traditions which defend trusting moral testimony and deferring to moral experts are, I will argue, missing something of vital moral importance.

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(Something interesting I found)Posted: Friday, February 12, 2010 by nick stock
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