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«In Defense of Moral Testimony1 forthcoming in Philosophical Studies Paulina Sliwa Moral testimony has been getting a bad name in the recent ...»

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In Defense of Moral Testimony1

forthcoming in Philosophical Studies

Paulina Sliwa

Moral testimony has been getting a bad name in the recent literature.2 It has been argued that

while testimony is a perfectly fine source for nonmoral belief, there’s something wrong with

basing one’s moral beliefs on it. is paper argues that the bad name is undeserved: Moral

testimony isn’t any more problematic than nonmoral testimony.3

Some people claim that there is something intuitively problematic about deferring to others for one’s moral beliefs: there seems to be something valuable about coming to one’s moral beliefs by

oneself. Hills, argues for example:

Once you have reached maturity as an adult and have the ability to think about moral questions by yourself [...] you have strong reasons to do so, indeed that refusing to do so is unacceptable.4 While children may be in need of moral education and hence should take their parents’ word for what’s right and wrong, it seems that as adults we shouldn’t rely on others for our moral beliefs.

Worries about moral testimony are further supported by particular cases, such as this one:

1For helpful comments and discussions, I would like to thank Nomy Arpaly, Alex Byrne, Tom Dougherty, Tyler Doggett, David Gray, Daniel Greco, Sally Haslanger, Brian Hedden, Richard Holton, Sophie Horowitz, Miranda Fricker, Elisa Mai, Julia Markovits, Josh Schechter, Miriam Schoenfield, Daniel Star, Katia Vavova, and Kenny Walden. I would also like to thank the audiences of the 2011 Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference, the 2011 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, the Boston University Ethics Group, and the MIT Work in Progress Seminar.

2To see that it’s been getting a bad name, it’s enough to just have a look at the titles. For examples, see Nickel (2001), Hopkins (2007), Hills (2009), Driver (2006), McGrath (2010).

3ere has been much recent discussion about the epistemology of nonmoral testimony. See Coady (1996) and Lackey (2008). For the purposes of this paper, I am not committing myself to any particular account of the epistemology of testimony. My argument is just that moral testimony does not differ from nonmoral testimony-whatever the right account of the latter turns out to be.

4 Hills (2009), p. 95.

Sliwa 1 Vegetarian: Eleanor has always enjoyed eating meat but has recently realized that it raises some moral issues. Rather than thinking further about these, however, she talks to a friend, who tells her that eating meat is wrong. Eleanor knows that her friend is normally trustworthy and reliable, so she believes her and accepts that eating meat is wrong.5

Eleanor’s behavior seems disturbing. We can imagine even more disturbing cases:

Suit: Sam is standing at the shore of a lake when he sees a drowning child. He believes that saving the child would be a good thing to do but it would involve ruining his new expensive suit. He cannot decide what to do and there is no one else at the lake, so he decides to call a friend whom he takes to be reliable. His friend tells him that he should save the child, and he believes him and saves the child.

Why are these cases so troubling? Some suggest that what makes these cases peculiar is that they are instances of moral testimony. ey argue that, were Eleanor to ask her friend about some nonmoral question, this wouldn’t be troubling at all. We should hence conclude that there is a general problem about moral testimony. In particular, what explains that the cases are disturbing

is a principle like:

NO TESTIMONY: For a mature moral agent, there is something wrong with relying on testimony for one’s moral beliefs even if one knows one’s source to be reliable and trustworthy.

If something like NO TESTIMONY is right, this has implications for both moral epistemology and meta-ethics. Some take the asymmetry between moral and nonmoral testimony as evidence that what matters in moral epistemology is not moral knowledge but rather moral understanding.6 Others suggest that an asymmetry between moral and nonmoral testimony has far-reaching consequences for meta-ethics. In particular, they argue, if moral testimony turns out to be problematic, this can be used as an argument against moral realism in support of non-cognitivist views.

After all, when it comes to deep and unobvious facts about the empirical world, we readily defer to others [...] who are better placed to discover those facts than we are. In such cases, 5 Hills (2009), p. 94.

6 See Hills (2009).

–  –  –

According to moral realist views, moral facts are no different from non-moral facts, the burden is

on the moral realist to provide an explanation for any epistemic asymmetry:

e goal of this paper is to show that there is no general problem about moral testimony; in fact moral testimony is no more problematic than nonmoral testimony. My strategy is as follows: In Section 1, I give a direct argument that NO TESTIMONY is false. en, in Section 2, I defend this argument against an objection. In Section 3, I revisit the initial cases that motivated worries about moral testimony and provide a better diagnosis of what goes wrong in them. I show that in these cases the agent’s reliance on moral testimony isn’t the culprit--rather, the culprit is moral ignorance, controversy, or ulterior motives. Finally, I consider two attempts to spell out and defend NO TESTIMONY. According to the first, moral testimony is epistemically problematic because it doesn’t give us moral knowledge. According to the second, moral testimony is morally problematic because it’s incompatible with morally worthy actions. I argue that neither of these attempts succeeds. us, there is no asymmetry between moral and nonmoral testimony.





1. e Argument from Moral Advice 7 McGrath (2010), p. 12 8 Since I argue that there is no asymmery between moral and nonmoral testimony, I do not think that there is a special problem for moral realist. But even if there were an asymmetry, this would create a puzzle for moral realists and plausible non-cognitivist views alike. While emotivists have an easy explanation for why moral testimony is troubling, these views are implausible because they cannot account for moral disagreement. More sophisticated views of disagreement, such as Gibbard’s norm-expressivism, on the other hand, do not have an explanation of the asymmetry readily at hand. In fact, some of these views explicitly grant that we can rely on others for our moral norms. Gibbard (1990), for example, writes: “When conditions are right and someone else finds a norm independently credible, I must take that as favoring my own accepting the norm.” (p. 180) In general, it seems that any non-cognitivist view that makes room for moral disagreement, does not have an easy explanation for a deep asymmetry between moral and nonmoral testimony.

–  –  –

moral testimony is an unusual and exotic phenomenon. But relying on others for our moral beliefs isn’t exotic. It’s something all of us do by asking for and taking moral advice and it’s something we do for good reasons. To get a better picture of the role of moral testimony, it’s therefore important to look at a wider range of cases. In this section I will therefore look at some mundane cases in which agents rely on moral advice. I will argue that these cases are intuitively unproblematic and that the agent’s reliance on moral advice is a good thing. But, I will argue, there is no difference between relying on moral advice and relying on moral testimony. So any general principle like NO TESTIMONY must be false.

I want to start with some fairly ordinary cases of moral advice.

WEDDING: Tom and Sara are planning a wedding and both of their families have offered to contribute money towards it. Sara’s family, who are less wealthy than Tom’s, offered a certain sum, which will cover less than half of the expenses. e couple is now wondering whether it would be permissible for them to ask Tom’s family (which is wealthier) for a greater contribution. In particular, they worry that it wouldn’t be fair of them to ask one set of parents for more. ey decide to ask a friend whose judgment they trust.

TRIP: Anna is a journalist who is preparing to go on a reporting trip to a dangerous and conflict-ridden area. She has to tell her family that she will be away but she really doesn’t know what to tell them. If she tells them where exactly she’s going and why, they will be extremely worried. On the other hand, she worries that by evading the questions she would be lying. She goes back and forth but cannot decide what the right thing to do is and eventually decides to ask a friend whose judgment she trusts.

FRIENDS: Susan’s friends have been playing pranks on a new girl in her class. Susan worries that they might be going too far and that they are bullying the girl. But when she talks to them, they insist that they are just teasing her. Susan doesn’t know what to do. If her friends are being bullies, she should step in. But they are her friends and she doesn’t want to get them in trouble and she’s not quite sure whether what they are doing is bullying. Eventually, she decides to ask a friend for advice.

Intuitively, there isn’t anything wrong or disturbing about these cases. In all of them, it seems fine for the agent to rely on their friends’ judgments and to take their friends’ advice. You might worry that in these cases, the agents aren’t really relying on someone else’s moral judgment. After

–  –  –

advice, the agents aren’t really asking for any moral information. Now, it does seem true that not all instances of apparent moral advice really do involve a request for moral information. When asking their friend “Would it be okay for us to ask Tom’s parents for a greater contribution?” the couple might just be unsure about how Tom’s parents would react to the proposal. ey might not be so much worried about whether asking more of Tom’s parents really is fair, but rather whether Tom’s parents would think that it’s fair. And in this case, they aren’t relying on their friend’s moral judgment but rather on her psychological acuity. Suppose that their friend tells them, “Don’t do this, Tom’s parents will be upset”, and they accept that they shouldn’t do it. ey might be just relying on their friend for the belief that Tom’s parents would be upset and use this nonmoral information to make their own moral judgment.

However, it seems clear that not all requests for moral advice are just requests for psychological information in disguise. We are sometimes uncertain about what the right thing to do is, not because we lack nonmoral information, but because we are genuinely uncertain about the moral status of the action or the situation. In particular, we can imagine that Tom and Sara have a very good idea about how Tom’s parents would react to their request and they know that they would be happy to contribute a greater part. But even so, Tom and Sara might still be unsure whether it would be reasonable to ask them to do so. Similarly, Anna might know that her family will be terribly upset if she doesn’t keeps quiet about the nature of her trip and they will accuse her of having lied should they find out. Nevertheless, she might be unsure whether they would be justified in their accusations. at’s because she is unsure about whether what she contemplates doing really does amount to a lie. And finally, Susan might be aware of the psychological effects that her friends’ behavior has on the girl but she might still be unsure if what they’re doing really

–  –  –

on their moral judgment. And in the cases I considered, this seems like a good thing.

Why can taking someone’s moral advice be a good thing? In relying on someone else’s moral judgment, we acknowledge that the other person is in a better epistemic position with respect to the particular moral judgment than we are. And we can have excellent reasons for doing so.

Why should we take someone else to be better placed to make a given moral judgment? ere are at least two good reasons for doing so: For one, we might be concerned that our own judgment is compromised by bias or self-interest. Secondly, we might think that the other person is just better at making certain moral judgments than we are.

Worries about bias are an important motivation for seeking out moral advice. Figuring out what the right thing to do is often requires us to take an impartial perspective on our action and to bracket morally irrelevant factors in our moral reasoning. But that’s not easy. It’s hard to know whether or not on a given occasion our reasoning is being influenced by morally irrelevant factors. And then even when we suspect that our reasoning is infected by biases, it’s hard to know the extent to which this has happened. So, even if we do realize that our reasoning is biased, we may still not be in a position to fix it. In situations like this, we should rely on moral advice. We should rely on the judgment of someone who isn’t subject to our biases. us, in FRIENDS, Susan might worry that she’s not reliable in judging whether the girl is being bullied because it’s her friends who are involved. After all, we’re less likely to judge our friends harshly and more likely to make up excuses for their behavior. But just knowing this may not help her do better. In fact, if she tries to compensate for the bias, she might even err too much on the side of caution and end up overreacting to even harmless jokes. us, asking for advice is he best she can do.

–  –  –

judgment of whether it’s fair to ask Tom’s family for the greater contribution. After all, if the combined contribution of their parents doesn’t amount to the full cost of the wedding, they will either have to pay the rest out of their own (slim) pockets or they will have to change their plans to cut some costs. So it’s in their own interest to think that it would be fair to ask Tom’s parents for a greater contribution. Moral judgments often either require us to set our own interests and preferences aside or they require us to weigh self-interested reasons against the interests of others. In such cases, we seek out moral advice because we don’t trust our own moral judgment.



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