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

Part of the Ethical Economy book series (SEEP,volume 50)


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.


  • Scientific Community
  • Moral Responsibility
  • Policy Scientist
  • Reasonable Person
  • Policy Advice

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  1. 1.

    They treat the fall of Lehman as a discretionary policy choice (61) that cannot be modeled. For more discussion of this case see Schliesser (2011).

  2. 2.

    Douglas (2009), p. 83ff. Ian Hacking (1992) has developed a sophisticated treatment of the self-vindicating norms of various scientific communities.

  3. 3.

    Restatement Third of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm (2010), Apportionment of Liability (2000), and Products Liability (1998).

  4. 4.

    Neil Levy reminded us that in the United States courts use the so-called Daubert and Frye tests in evaluating admissibility of scientific facts and theories – both tests crucially make reference to widespread acceptance within a scientific community. From our vantage point this makes the question we are pursuing in the chapter only more urgent.

  5. 5.

    Douglas 2009, p. 76. Of course, the requirements and incentives to take non-epistemic (e.g., legal, financial, ethical, etc.) factors into consideration may themselves be extra-scientific.

  6. 6.

    We leave aside to what degree this practice is itself a historic relic from a different scientific culture or organization.

  7. 7.

    In private correspondence Heather Douglas pointed out that on her view “if there are scientific groups without ethical codes or indeed any sense of responsibility for the consequences of error … they are in moral error.”

  8. 8.

    This is a stricter standard than an appeal to what is to be found in textbooks, which are often trailing scientific findings at the so-called “research frontier.” On the latter concept, see de Solla Price (1965).

  9. 9.

    McIntyre (2011). Of course, as she remarks, “traditional formulations of double effect require that the value of promoting the good end outweigh the disvalue of the harmful side effect;” so it is not a blanket principle.

  10. 10.

    We thank Neil Levy for this formulation.

  11. 11.

    For an influential statement of this idea within economics, see Stigler (1969). For recent critical engagement see Schliesser (2011), and Boettke et al. (2010).

  12. 12.

    We thank Neil Levy for pressing this point.

  13. 13.

    The locus classicus is Gordon Tullock: “Not all of the advocates of tariffs, of course, are hired by ‘the interests.’ But the existence of people whose living does depend on finding arguments for tariffs and the further existence of another group who think that maybe, sometime in the future, they might need the assistance of either someone who believes in tariffs or an economist who is in this racket makes it possible for them to continue to publish, even in quite respectable journals. Thus a dispute which intellectually was settled over a century ago still continues.” The point generalizes. Tullock ([1966] 2005): Chapter VII: The Backwardness of the Social Sciences.

  14. 14.

    In standard applied welfare economics distribution effects are ignored in calculating so-called “consumer surplus,” but this means that some of the most controversial social consequences of policy-advice is systematically neglected. See Harberger (1971), for an important defense, and Khan (1992a) for criticism.

  15. 15.

    This was also contested. See, for example the Koopmans-Vining debate; the papers are nicely available here:, accessed on May 16, 2011. We thank Roger Backhouse for calling our attention to it. See also Harberger (1971). See also Düppe and Weintraub 2013.

  16. 16.

    This need not be explicit; criticisms of a new benchmark my come to an end. See Pickering (1992). In private correspondence Douglas insisted that on her view “it is not the case that what is foreseeable is only what is discussed and considered.” The following goes beyond this point.

  17. 17.

    Not all sciences have what we may label a Popperian ethos in which concepts, models, and theories are deliberately constantly stress-tested. Plenty of sciences have what we may call a confirming ethos; that is they seek to provide evidence for theories. For the sake of argument, we stipulate that such a confirming ethos may be the most efficient epistemic practice.

  18. 18.

    See Mäki (2011), who points out that the attainable truths may not necessarily track the truths worth having. See also Schliesser (2005).

  19. 19.

    According to I. Votsis (2011) the term “Kuhn-loss” seems to be coined by Heinz Post (1971).

  20. 20.

    Hasok Chang (2004) offers ingenious arguments for the significance of Kuhn-losses, and he uses these to motivate the pursuit of non-standard science. For extensions of the argument, see Schliesser 2008, 2009.

  21. 21.

    Stigler 1975, pp. 3–4. We thank David Levy for calling our attention to it. Stigler was also an active promoter of Kuhnian views about science within economics. For the larger story, see Schliesser 2012.

  22. 22.

    The desire to produce consensus may, in fact, sometimes be the distant cause of the negligence; in such cases philosophies of science that promote an image of science as a consensus activity may be thought complicit in the negligence.

  23. 23.

    We thank David M. Levy for pressing this point.

  24. 24. QoeflSE. See, for example, the canonical paper by Fama (1970), which has over 8,000 citations.

  25. 25.

    Including work done by those awarded the Nobel prize in economics. See Smith et al. (1988).

  26. 26.

    Audiences to earlier drafts of this chapter worried that we demand a change of behavior in the epistemic practices of individual scientists.

  27. 27.

    Some readers might wish to claim that our position has been decisively disproved in a famous article by Robert J. Aumann 1976, “Agreeing to Disagree,”. But even if we grant the appropriateness of his Bayesian conceptual apparatus, Aumann does not provide an institutional framework that ensures that equilibrium in the information exchange will be reached such that rational disagreement becomes impossible. Our approach offers reasons for thinking that the preconditions that would make his proof actual for real scientific communities sometimes (often?) do not exist. We thank M. Ali Khan for urging us to consider Aumann.

  28. 28.

    Stigler 1975, pp. 15–16. See Levy and Peart (2008). Stigler was an early, enthusiastic reader of Kuhn; within economics it is common to encounter Kuhnian concepts (see Schliesser 2011 for details).

  29. 29.

    De Langhe 2009, p. 88. See also Kitcher 2001, pp. 55–62. Here we ignore the question of what causes a lack of pluralism. When we presented this material to an audience of economists at NYU, these proposed that government funding practices may be the source of monopoly power within many sciences.

  30. 30.

    For an excellent introduction, see section “2. Feminist Standpoint Theory” in Anderson 2011.

  31. 31.

    This is, in fact, the approach favored by one of the co-authors.

  32. 32.

    Such professional duties have long been recognized by economists, including Alfred Marshall and A.C. Harberger (1971).

  33. 33.

    Boundary policing of a discipline makes it a bit tricky to say when such perspectives are still available. Moreover, different theories may, of course, be differently empirically supported. But even theories that are empirically less supported along many dimensions may do better in a sub-set of problems.

  34. 34.

    See the criticism of Lawrence Summers by Khan 1992b, 1993 and the subsequent discussion by Ron Jones in the same issue, pp. 580–582.

  35. 35.

    To ensure an anonymous referee process this sentence has been adapted. The original sentence can be found on the title page.

  36. 36.

    Mitchell and Dietrich (2006). It turns on recognizing different levels that need not require general unification.

  37. 37.

    Van Bouwel (in print) and Van Bouwel (2004, 2005).

  38. 38.

    Keating and Della Porta 2010, p. S112.

  39. 39.

    Batens (1974, 2004). There are other philosophers who advocate similar views, such as: Thomas Nickles (1980) Nancy Nersessian (2008) and Eric Schliesser (2005).

  40. 40.

    For an interesting discussion about this form of contextualism, we refer to Demey (forthcoming).

  41. 41.

    This is what happened to the Chicago economist Frank Knight, who indirectly created the foundations for an understanding of economics as an applied policy science as made famous by “Chicago-economics” (e.g., Milton Friedman, George Stigler, A.C. Harberger, and Gary Becker), but who himself was a deep pluralist about the way social science could influence policy and who embraced (epistemic) uncertainty as a fact of life in most policy decisions. For a very good discussion of Knight see Ross Emmett (2009), chapter 12.

  42. 42.

    This distinction is in many respects a manner of degree, of course. A grant-making, lab-director straddles our distinction for example.

  43. 43.

    There are other potential benefits to our proposal: if one paradigm bluntly fails, there are alternatives available that can provide decent answers. Not to mention that scientific monocultures may be vulnerable to extinction. So our proposal may increase the robustness of science. We thank Dunja Seselja for pointing out this benefit.

  44. 44.

    To forestall misunderstanding: an argument that all people affected by a policy decision should be included in policy discussion falls beyond the scope of our more limited concern here.

  45. 45.

    This is not just arm-chair philosophizing. Consider the massive damage done to environments and indigenous people by large multinational lending institutions in the grip of one-sided economics paradigms.

  46. 46.

    Some grant agencies already do this on a modest scale: The NSF’s “STS considers proposals for scientific research into the interface between science (including engineering) or technology, and society. STS researchers use diverse methods including social science, historical, and philosophical methods. Successful proposals will be transferrable (i.e., generate results that provide insights for other scientific contexts that are suitably similar). They will produce outcomes that address pertinent problems and issues at the interface of science, technology and society, such as those having to do with practices and assumptions, ethics, values, governance, and policy.”


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We are grateful to M. Ali Khan, David Levy, Neil Levy, Roger Koppl, and Frank Zenker for very helpful suggestions. We are especially grateful for the generous feedback by Heather Douglas. We also thank audiences at Lund, New York University, George Mason University, and Bayreuth for very helpful comments. The usual caveats apply.

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Lefevere, M., Schliesser, E. (2014). Private Epistemic Virtue, Public Vices: Moral Responsibility in the Policy Sciences. In: Martini, C., Boumans, M. (eds) Experts and Consensus in Social Science. Ethical Economy, vol 50. Springer, Cham.

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