Posted 7/23/99

"Second-Hand Moral Knowledge" The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 96, No. 2 (February 1999) 55-78, by Karen Jones (Cornell University),

Reviewed by Eric Wiland (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

(See also reply by Karen Jones)

k-drop.gif - 1.3 Karen Jones, in her recent paper in The Journal of Philosophy, argues that testimony is an important source of moral knowledge. Moral epistemology has traditionally neglected the ways our moral views appropriately depend upon what others tell us, and Jones has done us a service to draw our attention to this fact. Nevertheless, as I explain below, I don't think that her principal argument for this conclusion is cogent. A better argument for her conclusion reveals why it is fruitful to think in terms of moral advice rather than moral testimony.

Jones argues that it can be appropriate to believe a moral truth on someone else's say-so by exploring at great length the following (fictitious?) example. Peter had lived in a cooperative house for two years, but had become increasingly distressed by the cooperative's membership decisions. Decisions to accept someone into the cooperative had to be unanimous, and Peter had come to believe that the threat of veto over a potential member was making membership decisions unjust. On several occasions, other members of the cooperative had rejected male candidates because of their perceived sexism. While Peter was himself devoted to opposing sexism and racism, he was not very good at picking out instances of such behavior. Sometimes he could be brought about to see that something really counts as an instance of sexism, but often he had problems when he could not grasp the reasons why others were calling someone sexist. As a result, Peter decided to leave the house. He felt that he had to be able to endorse the decisions the group was making. To him, it seemed irresponsible simply to trust the judgment of some of the other members that a particular candidate was sexist.

Jones, however, thinks that "Peter should have been willing to accept the women's testimony that these men were sexist. But for him to have done so would have been to accept and act upon a moral judgment on someone else's say-so. It would have been to borrow moral knowledge" (my emphasis, 60). I want to explore and to question the inference Jones here makes. I want to assume, at least for the sake of the argument, that Peter indeed should have been willing to accept the testimony of his housemates. But would he thereby accept and act upon a moral judgment on someone else's say-so?

One reason to be doubtful concerns the nature of the charge of sexism. We might think that if Peter accepts the judgment that the candidates were sexist, then he is accepting testimony only about a nonmoral fact describing the candidates' behavior, behavior which Peter's own moral attitudes condemn. And no one who has opposed the idea that there is such a thing as borrowing moral knowledge has meant to reject the view that one can borrow nonmoral knowledge that triggers one's own moral attitudes.

Jones, however, both anticipates this move and rightly replies that sexism is not just any kind of differentiation on the basis of sex; rather, it is morally unjustified differentiation on the basis of sex. And so for Peter to accept the testimony that the housing candidates were sexist is indeed for him to accept a bit of moral testimony, not merely a bit of nonmoral testimony that triggers his own moral views (61).

But this reply does not adequately deflect the objection. For one might think that sexual differentiation is generally unjustified, and that the burden of proof is on the one defending a particular instance of differentiation to show that, in this case, it is not unjustified. If one learns that there is some case of sexual differentiation, one's default stance is to consider this unjustified, unless and until one learns that this case is special or unusual. Thus for Peter, who is committed to opposing sexism, to learn that a particular housing applicant differentiated on the basis of sex is for him to judge tentatively that this applicant acted unjustly, and thus was guilty of sexism. And so Peter could come to believe that the applicant acted in a sexist manner because he accepts the testimony that the applicant differentiated on the basis of sex. But this is not to accept moral testimony. It is to accept testimony about a nonmoral fact, a fact to which his already-held moral principle probably applies. Thus it is still not clear that in accepting the testimony that the candidate was a sexist, Peter would be accepting a moral judgment on someone else's say-so.

But supposing I am wrong about this, let's look at the next part of Jones' claim, the idea that for Peter to accept his housemate's testimony would be to act upon a moral judgment. What possible action would have constituted or would have been implied by Peter's accepting this bit of testimony? It is unclear, but perhaps the idea is that if Peter had accepted her judgment, he wouldn't have decided to leave the cooperative.

This cannot be right, though. Peter could very well have accepted the claim that the candidate in question was indeed sexist, while still deciding to live in a co-operative that conducted its membership decisions differently. One's choice of where and with whom to live is hardly determined by moral considerations (unless morality is totalitarian). Peter might decide that while his housemates had not acted unreasonably in vetoing certain candidates for membership, he would still rather live in a co-op whose decisions were determined by, say, the will of the majority.[note 1]

This would be nit-picky were it not for what it points to. On Jones' account of moral testimony, it seems that one can accept a moral judgement on someone else's say-so, thereby acquiring moral knowledge, without this necessarily motivating one to do anything. This is because the kind of testimony under discussion is testimony about moral principles-what they are, whether they apply, and their relative importance (61-62). But knowing these things about moral principles does not always suffice for moral deliberation: even if one is confident about the relative importance of the various moral principles that apply to the circumstances under consideration, one may still be in a quandary about what to do. Often one is stuck with the problem of getting from the general principles to the particular decision.

To illustrate a way around this, suppose Peter now lives in a co-operative whose membership decisions are determined by the will of the majority. The co-op has just interviewed a candidate for membership, and Peter wants to figure out whether to vote up or down. Peter thinks that the candidate has many favorable qualities, but he also notices that some of the members are not so keen on him. Fortunately, there is one member in the co-op whom Peter is disposed to trust. Peter asks her what she thinks of the candidate, and she tells him that she thinks that the candidate seemed a bit sexist-although his behavior wasn't egregious enough to say for sure-but it would be wisest to pass him over in hopes of finding someone less likely to spark problems. Realizing that he is not in the best position to determine how bad things could get if it turned out that the candidate was sexist, Peter decides to take her advice, and cast a nay vote.

Here what Peter trusts is his housemate's judgment about what to do, not what to believe. He is not merely accepting her testimony, he is accepting her advice. And to the degree to which we think that morality is essentially a practical matter, the more natural it should seem to speak of trusting moral advice rather than moral testimony.

Thinking about moral trust in terms of moral advice shows how radically different morality is from domains conventionally associated with testimony. While trusting another's testimony usually involves acquiring a new belief, accepting another's advice necessarily involves doing something one otherwise might not have done. And so to speak of advice rather than testimony is to insist upon the practical upshot of moral trusting. In the original example, Peter could have accepted his housemate's moral testimony without this really affecting in any significant way what he was going to do. But to accept another person's moral advice necessarily alters one's motivational leanings. It is precisely to let another person's judgment determine how one will act. And this is what moral trust involves, if there is such a thing.

1. Likewise, those in academic departments whose members have veto power over hiring decisions might come to realize that such a system is not necessarily the best way of going about things. It wouldn't be unreasonable for a member of such a department to go elsewhere if she found that this system was unhealthy, even if she believes that none of the individuals of the department had acted irresponsibly.

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