Posted 8/26/99

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

Reply to Wiland (available here)
Karen Jones

e-drop.gif - 1.3 Kric Wiland takes me to task for failing to differentiate between moral testimony and moral advice and claims that the notion of moral advice ought to be more central to our understanding of the social nature of moral epistemology than the notion of moral testimony. Wiland is correct that I fail to distinguish between moral testimony and moral advice: Peter's case involves moral testimony ("these men are sexist"); the Chinese friends' case involves moral advice ("You should join the political movement") and yet I treat these cases as if there was no important difference between them. There is indeed a difference between them; nevertheless, I want to claim that the notion of moral testimony is more fundamental than the notion of moral advice and that advice can be seen as a sub-species of testimony.

The difference between moral advice and moral testimony is that advice, since it concerns what a particular agent ought to do here and now, is immediately and directly practical whereas testimony, while practical, may not be immediately or directly practical. Wiland disputes my claim that for Peter to have accepted the women's testimony regarding the sexism of the applicants would have been "to accept and act upon a moral judgment on the basis of someone else's say-so." (60) Wiland asks what action would have followed from Peter's accepting this testimony and claims that it cannot be the action of not leaving the co-op for Peter might have left anyway. There are ways of developing the case which will make it true that Peter would have left anyway; however, as the case is described (or at any rate, as I meant to describe it), given Peter's background beliefs, desires, and values, his accepting the testimony would have made him stay. He left because he wanted no part in unjust decisions, but he wouldn't have thought the decisions unjust had he accepted the women's testimony. (In addition, had he accepted the women's testimony he would have been able to perform the internal "action" of identifying with the group's decision.) The point is this: against the right kind of background, accepting moral testimony generates action. The person who offers moral advice must presume to know enough about the rest of an agent's values to be able to testify as to what the agent should do, here and now, and all-thing-considered.

If moral testimony and advice are distinguished along these lines (and I take it this is how Wiland wants to distinguish them) then there are two reasons for thinking testimony is the more central notion. First, testimony lets us expand our understanding of the world of value even when facts about the action options open to us prevent this understanding from issuing in action in the short or even relatively long-term. Such understanding is important in itself and may eventually enable us to act well when otherwise we might not have been able to do so. Second, since advice is directed in answer to "what should I do" questions, it typically presupposes a very high level of knowledge of the agent. (Only typically because some issues might be so pressing that a testifier can say what you should do because they can say what anyone should do.) Advice giving will thus be appropriate mainly between intimates. Testimony, in contrast, can be appropriate between non-intimates provided that the conditions for justified trusting are met as I take it they sometimes can be. Focusing on advice makes our value epistemology interpersonal; however, focusing on testimony makes it more richly social without making us deny the importance of advice.

A final note: Because we live in a very gender-differentiated society, almost all our norms for interaction are gender-coded (witness our confusion when we cannot tell someone's gender). Thus I don't think that Peter's case can be handled by citing a principle that differentiating between the sexes is generally wrong together with the non-moral (and borrowed) belief that this is a case involving differentiation between the sexes. But settling this question would take us very far afield into a discussion of the nature of sexism. Anyone not persuaded by the case can substitute their own.

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