Experts and Consensus in Social Science

Volume 50 of the series Ethical Economy pp 275-295


Private Epistemic Virtue, Public Vices: Moral Responsibility in the Policy Sciences

  • Merel LefevereAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy and Moral Science, Ghent University Email author 
  • , Eric SchliesserAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy and Moral Science, Ghent University

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In this chapter we address what we call “The-Everybody-Did-It” (TEDI) Syndrome, a symptom for collective negligence. Our main thesis is that the character of scientific communities can be evaluated morally and be found wanting in terms of moral responsibility. Even an epistemically successful scientific community can be morally responsible for consequences that were unforeseen by it and its members and that follow from policy advice given by its individual members. We motivate our account by a critical discussion of a recent proposal by Heather Douglas. We offer three, related criticisms of Douglas’s account. First, she assumes that scientific fields are communicative communities. Second, in a system where the scientific community autonomously sets standards, there is a danger of self-affirming reasoning. Third, she ignores that the character of a scientific community is subject to moral evaluation. We argue that these omissions in Douglas’s theory leave it with no adequate response to TEDI Syndrome. Moreover, we deny that science ought to be characterized by unanimity of belief among its competent practitioners, this leads easily to the vices of close-mindedness and expert-overconfidence. If a scientific community wishes to avoid these vices it should create conditions for an active pluralism when it and its members aspire to the position of rational policy decision-making.