About the project

Our belief-formation is shot through with reliance on expert knowledge. We believe that we can get from location A to location B via a certain route because a friend or Google Maps says so. We may have no idea, at all, why certain pills would make our ailments go away, but we believe that they will, thanks to a doctor saying so. And we believe that a certain punishment will have a certain deterrence effect because the criminologists says so, even if we don’t exactly understand the explanations they give.

However, suppose that someone were to wonder whether eating factory-farmed meat is ethically permissible and would then simply launch a new app, Google Morals, in order to figure out what the right answer is [1]. Or suppose that a legislator were to read a brief from a moral philosopher, and then decide – without having any understanding of the reasoning behind the philosopher’s conclusions – that a certain punishment is unjust. Reliance on ethical expertise – ethical expert knowledge – seems weird, and often irrational and morally problematic. Indeed, the very idea of someone knowing what’s right or wrong, or how we should live, may seem puzzling to many.

Yet we cannot simply altogether dismiss the idea of ethical knowledge. Clearly we seem to know, for instance, that certain punishments (e.g., stoning to death) are morally impermissible. And it also seems that some of us have more ethical knowledge, or ethical understanding, than others. If so, shouldn’t we give considerable weight to their opinions? Decisions concerning medical care, the use of biotechnology, or climate change are loaded with difficult moral choices requiring specific ethical expertise. If ethical expert knowledge is available, shouldn’t it somehow guide our policy-making with regard to such issues? This question is an especially pertinent one in our current cultural and political context where the respect for expert knowledge in general seems to be on the decline.

This research project, Ethical Expertise – the Prospects, Problems and Metaethical Implications of Deferring to Ethical Knowledge (2017-2019), addresses these topics and seeks to generate discussion on ethical expertise while bringing the more theoretical moral philosophical results to bear on the issue. The project studies the nature of ethical expertise and its implications for metaethics – the study of the very nature and foundations of ethics – and for political practice. The project is funded through a 3-Year Research Grant from the University of Helsinki.

[1] The example of Google Morals comes from Howell, R. J., 2014, “Google Morals, Virtue, and the Asymmetry of Deference,” Nôus 48: 389-415.