In defense of moral testimony

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  1. 1.

    To 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 (2009).

  2. 2.

    There has been much recent discussion about the epistemology of nonmoral testimony. See Coady (1992) 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.

  3. 3.

    Hills (2009, p. 95).

  4. 4.

    Hills (2009, p. 94).

  5. 5.

    See Hills (2009).

  6. 6.

    McGrath (2011, p. 12).

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    You might worry that in all the unproblematic cases of moral testimony so far, the agent takes on someone else’s say-so that a moral norm they already accept applies. Hence, you might worry that I haven’t shown that we can acquire a new norm on the basis of moral testimony. I address this worry in the next section. There I show that insofar as accepting a new norm on the basis of testimony seems problematic, it’s not testimony that is to blame. Independently of this, I am skeptical that we can draw a sharp distinction between learning how to apply a norm and accepting a norm, in the first place.

  9. 9.

    The central example in Jones (1999) is also of this kind. In the example, Jones argues, Peter ought to defer to his (female) roommates’ judgments of sexism. Jones uses this example to argue for a narrower conclusion than I do. I argue that in general there isn’t anything wrong with relying on moral testimony, not just that in some particular instances there isn’t.

  10. 10.

    Hills (2009, p. 122–123).

  11. 11.

    See Holton (2010).

  12. 12.

    See Christensen (2007).

  13. 13.

    For example, advice is often presented in the form: “Here’s what I think…” In giving advice, the speaker hence often doesn’t speak as authoritatively as when she is testifying.

  14. 14.

    A similar case appears in Hills (2009).

  15. 15.

    This also explains why it would be epistemically problematic to accept many moral norms on the basis of moral testimony. If, for example, you became a consequentialist on the basis of moral testimony, your belief would not be justified.

  16. 16.

    In her (2009) McGrath argues that our inability to identify experts accounts for the asymmetry between moral and nonmoral testimony. Later, in her (2011), she argues that it’s only part of what makes moral testimony is especially problematic—the full explanation also involves the problem of morally worthy actions on the basis of testimony.

  17. 17.

    See also Anscombe (1981, pp. 46–47).

  18. 18.

    In particular, it’s not enough that the agent performs the action because she believes that this is the right action. For a defense, see Arpaly (2003), and Markovits (2010).

  19. 19.

    For another defense of this view, see Nickel (2001).

  20. 20.

    McGrath (2011, pp. 38–39).

  21. 21.

    For objections, see Markovits (2010).

  22. 22.

    See Hills (2009, pp. 102–103).

  23. 23.

    Hills (2009, p. 98).

  24. 24.

    See also Annas (2003).

  25. 25.

    See Markovits, (forthcoming) for a defense that acting on moral testimony is morally worthy because testimony is a right-making reason.

  26. 26.

    I argue that an action based on moral testimony can have maximum moral worth, elsewhere.


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For helpful comments and discussions, the author 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. The author 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.

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Correspondence to Paulina Sliwa.

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Sliwa, P. In defense of moral testimony. Philos Stud 158, 175–195 (2012).

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  • Moral Judgment
  • Moral Belief
  • Moral Norm
  • Moral Realist
  • Moral Fact