Is there such a thing as moral expertise?

Good question, right? I’ve been thinking more about it for a few weeks now as a result of an interesting talk by Gopal Sreenivasan (Duke University) entitled “Moral expertise and the proto-authority of affect,” which he gave at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

The New York Times certainly seems to think that one can be a moral expert, hence its ongoing “Ask the Ethicist” column. It is currently run by Chuck Klosterman, a journalist, author, and essayist — not a moral philosopher. Interestingly, when he took over the job recently, Klosterman told New York Magazine: “I don’t claim to be more ethical than anyone else, or even more ethical than the average person. But I love thinking about these types of problems, and I’ll try to be interesting.” We’ll return to this point of the difference between thinking about and practicing ethics (or anything else, really) below.

Here is the typical problem Klosterman deals with at the NYT: “Looking for artwork for my home, I recently bought a used road sign online — a bright blue one advertising a campground ahead. I liked it and ended up buying a second one. Only after I purchased those two signs did it occur to me that they may have been stolen. Now I feel guilty. Throwing them in the recycling bin doesn’t really make the situation right. Selling them to someone else is no better. Reporting the sellers seems hypocritical — plus, I have no evidence. What is my obligation as an ethical citizen?”

As an exercise, before continuing reading this post, close the screen and think about the reader’s question. What advice would you give, and why?

Klosterman’s response was not to worry too much about it, for three reasons. To begin with, there is the fact that the reader is not actually positive that the sign was stolen. It probably was, but that isn’t the only way people acquire road signs. Second, human culpability — according to Klosterman — is limited in scope. Even assuming that the sign was in fact stolen, this might have happened dozen of transactions ago, and, as he puts it, “at some point, it just becomes an object that exists in the world.” Lastly, there is the issue of intent: the reader wasn’t consciously going after stolen property, in which case she could have been held responsible for fostering a black market for road signs. Rather, she engaged in the transaction without suspicions about the origin of the sign. All things considered, then, according to Klosterman, if there is an ethical issue here it is rather negligible.

I agree, and think that The Ethicist (this time) got his reasoning exactly right. This example is interesting to me because it makes a crucial point that some of my readers seem to either miss or be peculiarly uninterested in. When I write about ethics here at Rationally Speaking, people often gravitate toward meta-ethical issues: am I a moral realist? What grounds moral judgments in general? And since there is no free will (ah!), how can anyone possibly believe in ethical judgment? Oh, and hasn’t Sam Harris demonstrated that ethical questions are best answered by science?

But I’ve often argued that the most useful way to understand ethics is to think about it as a tool for reasoning about moral dilemmas, just as we have seen with the example above, or as is systematically illustrated by Michael Sandel’s books. Yes, of course ethical reasoning is done within a particular framework, be it deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics or something else. And yes, there are also interesting “meta” questions (just as there are for other areas of inquiry, including science itself). But for most human beings, most of the time, ethics is an issue of reflecting about real situations and making the best decision that is possible to make given the circumstances.

You’d be surprised how much some people seem to lack any ethical knowledge whatsoever, or perhaps simply callously suppress it when it is convenient for them. For instance, just last night I was having dinner with a group of acquaintances, and this guy starts talking about how he dealt with a claim related to a set of life insurance policies (the fellow is a lawyer). Apparently, someone had bought five policies and then had suspiciously died shortly thereafter. The insurance companies where so distrustful of the circumstances that they actually demanded that the body be dug up to verify that the guy was in fact dead. My acquaintance (who was representing the family of the allegedly deceased) got worried once it was clear that not only was there no body, but not even an interred casket! Rather than admitting defeat and beat an embarrassed retreat, the fellow in question actually paid locals to spread a rumor that the body had been stolen by the insurance company, which eventually led said company to settle out of court for part of the premium. While this asshole was jovially recounting the story at dinner it apparently never even crossed his mind that he was bragging about insurance fraud, a crime, and an obviously unethical thing to do.

Back to Sreenivasan’s talk. He argued that it is rational, when faced with a moral dilemma about which one is uncertain, to ask a virtuous person, treating her as a moral (proto)expert, which is of course precisely the sort of thing the NYT reader quoted above was doing. Klosterman is not an expert in the usual sense of the term, since — presumably — (theoretical) moral expertise belongs with people who think professionally about these things: moral philosophers such as Sandel. But a proto-expert is someone who we simply think has better insights into a given matter than we do, not necessarily a professional. I don’t know whether Klosterman actually qualifies, but judging from the reasoning with which he motivates his answers, and by the fact that the NYT gave him the job to begin with, we may be provisionally justified in thinking that he is.

Interestingly, though, Sreenivasan had a slightly different kind of expertise in mind: practical, rather than theoretical. He comes at this from the point of view of virtue ethics, and for Aristotle the model to follow in matters of morality was whoever had shown herself to be a virtuous person (we would call them “role models,” if the term hadn’t been almost entirely discredited by applying it to basketball stars and other reference individuals who have significantly contributed to lowering our standards of moral excellence and to confuse them with mere celebrity — but that’s another topic altogether).

The question, of course, is: how do we know whether a person is virtuous or not? Certainly not by the way he talks, since there appears to be little correlation between theoretical moral expertise and actual conduct. What matters in this case is how a person behaves, more or less consistently over her life. A single moral act — as praiseworthy as it may be — doesn’t make someone a proto-expert in morality in the sense advocated by Sreenivasan. And of course you want to definitely stay away from the sort of fellow I encountered at dinner last night. This is the perennially frustrating aspect of virtue ethics, as far as its critics are concerned: it is inescapably vague in its recommendations. However, I find this to be a reflection of the messy reality of ethics and the human condition, and therefore not a limitation, but rather an advantage of virtue ethics over rival, more rigid, frameworks, like utilitarianism or deontology.

During the q&a part of the presentation I brought up the issue of recent empirical evidence that seems to show that moral philosophers are no more ethical than average, asking Sreenivasan what are we to make of this (assuming that the studies in question are not problematic from the point of view of design or interpretation). His answer was that there is a difference between the (practical) expertise of the virtuous person and the (analytical) expertise of the moral philosopher, with no particular reason to expect the two to be tightly related. If you will, this would be like expecting that an art historian, say, be himself a more than mediocre painter; or perhaps that an engineer who designs Formula Uno cars be a better-than-average driver of said cars. Even the ancient Greeks made a distinction between theory and practice, with the first aimed at understanding and the latter at, well, practicing!


As Aristotle put it in the Nicomachean Ethics: “Virtue, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral; intellectual owes its birth and growth to teaching, while moral virtue comes to us through habit.”

Originally on Rationally Speaking