Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Moral Expertise

A paper plan, for a forthcoming volume on moral expertise:

“Trust Me, I’m a Moral Expert!”:
Moral Disagreements, Avoidable Beliefs and Unavoidable Actions

If you have a problem, you should often seek an expert for insight and guidance. Such is true in medicine, law, mental health, auto and home repair and much more. So, if you have a moral problem, a difficult problem beyond your ability to see what you should do about it, you might want to seek a moral expert, it seems.[1]   
            In this essay we discuss, first, how to identify genuine moral experts and avoid pseudo-moral experts and, second, theoretical and practice questions about what to believe and do when genuine moral experts disagree.

1.      What is a Moral Expert?

First, we develop two complementary models of what it is to be a moral expert: (1) a moral expert is someone who has a certain kind of epistemically justified beliefs concerning a moral issue; and (2) a moral expert has certain intellectual skills in identifying morally-relevant concerns and evaluating and making moral arguments. We argue that thinking of experts both as reasonable, justified believers and as skilled thinkers effectively captures what it is to be a moral expert in most actual contexts where moral expertise might be sought. [2]
2.      Is Anyone a Moral Expert, and How Might Non-Experts Tell?

After characterizing moral expertise, we offer some concrete guidance on how to identify moral experts. This is important because although many people claim to be moral experts, especially in bioethics, some – perhaps many – of them are not, we argue. Many physicians, lawyers, humanists, social scientists, theologians, and more call themselves “bioethicists.” Many of these thinkers don’t fit the definition of moral expert, presented above, and so we argue that they are not moral experts. It is, perhaps, not surprising that they often disagree with other bioethicists, given their lack of expertise.
            We offer a practical checklist for identifying genuine moral experts and avoiding those who are not experts.[3] We observe that there are difficulties in trying to ensure that a non-expert is able to identify a moral expert: if I know very little about cancer, it’s very hard for me to tell on my own that a doctor is a good oncologist. We offer suggestions for what sort of mechanisms would increase the chance that genuine moral experts are in positions to offer moral guidance to non-experts, in clinical and professional ethics advisement contexts.

3.      What Should We Think, and Do, when Moral Experts Disagree?

Finally, most importantly, we consider what we should think and do when genuine moral experts disagree. When a genuine expert agrees with a pseudo-expert, the disagreement is not challenging since the pseudo-expert lacks the skills and justified beliefs concerning the matter: they are not intellectual peers and so, all else being equal, we should side with the expert. Challenging cases, however, involve cases where genuine moral experts disagree. We apply many of the insights from “the epistemology of disagreement” to try to identify what to think, and do, in these cases of disagreement.

[1] But are there moral experts? We argue that there are, and offer guidance on how to find one, based on theorizing about what moral expertise is. But morality is fraught with disagreement, at least about complex and controversial issues that someone might seek serious advice on. So who to believe, if the experts disagree? And what to do, when the experts disagree, since action is often avoidable, especially for bioethical matters: e.g., the treatment must be given or not.
[2] We observe that expertise is on a continuum: someone can be more or less of an expert, depending on the level of his or her understanding and insight into the issues and arguments. Expertise is also time and issue sensitive: expertise at a time doesn’t guarantee expertise in the future, insofar as skills can get “rusty” and new arguments emerge that the now non-expert lacks the skills and understanding to address; and expertise on one moral issue doesn’t entail expertise in other areas: expertise is issue-specific, although expertise in one moral issue often supports the development of expertise in another, insofar as many skills and concepts are shared.
We also discuss the notion of a moral savant or prodigy, who seems to have the skills and justified beliefs of a moral expert but lacks the education and experiences that experts typically have that contribute to their being experts. We observe that since, in most actual contexts where moral expertise is sought, such an individual would have to “prove” his or her expertise, that she arrived at it in a peculiar manner would be practically irrelevant. Prodigies are possible, but they’d have to demonstrate their skills just like any other expert.
[3] Some concerns are the following:

a.        An adequate conceptual and theoretical vocabulary concerning arguments and ethics. (Lacking this discourages expertise).
b.       In most cases, experience in thinking through issues, to see common misunderstandings and mistakes and explain why these are errors. (Lacking this discourages expertise).
c.        Awareness of distorting factors: financial incentives, cultural pressures, self-deception, narcissism, etc.: meta-cognitive understanding. (Lacking this discourages expertise).
d.       Familiarity with and understanding of the best and deepest discussion of the issues. (Lacking this discourages expertise).

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