Moral Experts’ Understanding and Skills
Posted at Quillette, May 24, 2022.
Nathan Nobis, Professor of Philosophy, Morehouse College
Are anyone’s ethical judgments better than anyone else’s?
Yes, of course.
Anyone who believed, e.g., that there’s nothing morally wrong with murdering people for fun or that assaulting people for personal pleasure is fine, has worse moral judgment, at least on these matters, than anyone who denies this. This is common sense, despite a common insistence that ethics is “subjective” and “just opinions.”
Now, does anyone do a better job supporting their ethical judgments, i.e., giving reasons in favor of their views, especially on complex, controversial, and pressing ethical issues?
Some people better understand the issues – they know what’s said about the topic: they know the relevant facts; they know the arguments; they know the objections; they know the replies. They often know the historical and cultural context of the issue, and might be better able to predict where the issue is heading.
Such people might be ethics experts. Here I detail some of what makes someone an ethics expert or moral expert (“ethics” and “morals” are the same thing).
Experts have a high level of understanding of a subject matter: they 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 one an expert in other areas: e.g., expertise on the ethics of capital punishment does not 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 that people have actually said on the issues: expertise is not a priori omniscience.
Ethics experts’ understanding is based on skills that they have been taught, usually in a degree program, and often teach to others: these are skills gained and honed by reflective practice.
These skills include skills with arguments, such as:
skills at identifying exact conclusions;
skills at 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 stated outright;
skills – often just based on experience with the issue – in identifying claims that can have multiple meanings (e.g., “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;
skills at evaluating premises as justified or not, including using counterexamples to evaluate proposed ethical generalizations: e.g., “If a being isn’t ‘rational,’ then it cannot have moral rights,” “If you didn’t cause someone’s problem, then you are never obligated to help them.”
Skills with logic and arguments help ethical experts “keep their cool” in thinking about ethical issues. As a surgeon’s or lawyer’s expertise enables them to keep their cool when confronted with issues that non-experts would freak out about, ethics experts have systematic frameworks to use to engage issues with, which enables 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, did you know that “morally right” can mean either just “not wrong” (or morally permissible) or “wrong to not do” (morally obligatory)? Did you know that lacking a moral right to do something does not mean that you cannot be morally obligated to do the action?
Many people don’t; ethics experts do, and they know all sorts of other novel concepts that have been discovered that are very useful for understanding and evaluating ethical issues. In (good) ethics classes, students learn about these concepts and practice using them: they are learning what ethics expertise consists in.
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 best proposals for what it takes for an action to get into these categories – and their strengths and weaknesses – is useful for engaging practical issues, even if there’s no consensus (yet?) on which theory is best.
Indeed, one useful and influential strategy, especially in medical ethics, is to combine the arguably best theories to preserve the positive insights of each. Ethics experts understand that, given the type of disagreements we see in ethics, appealing to principles that have broad acceptance is a smart and wise move: getting stuck on deciding on an ethical theory could be unethical, if that prevents us from addressing an ethical issue.
Ethics expertise comes in degrees or levels. 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 them to engage current arguments, although with a much deeper level of understanding and insight than the average person.
Expertise in all areas can be corrupted, including in ethics: financial, self-interested, political, religious, “tribal” and other distorting influences can sway someone from having a genuinely fair and balanced, deep understanding. Being an ethical person is often hard: resisting temptation often isn’t easy for some of us, 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. People who aren’t experts can be duped by them: so non-experts can be convinced by 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?
These final concerns – about corrupt experts and pseudo-experts – are likely the most pressing practical problems about ethical expertise.
What can be done about them? If you are reading this, here’s at least what you can do: 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: ethics experts would agree.