Sarah McGrath is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and the Laurence S. Rockefeller University Preceptor at Princeton University. She received her PhD from MIT. Her recent research has been in metaethics, where she has written on topics such as the nature of ethical justification, moral disagreement and convergence, and the possibility of moral expertise. Recent papers include “Skepticism about Moral Expertise as a Puzzle for Moral Realism” (The Journal of Philosophy, 2011), “Moral Realism Without Convergence” (Philosophical Topics 2012), and “‘The Ethics of Casuistry’ Revisited” (Ethics, forthcoming).
Suppose that a friend informs you that he is passionately opposed to eating meat because doing so is immoral. You ask him why he thinks this: is there, for example, some particular argument against eating meat that he finds convincing? He replies that there is no such argument. In fact, the arguments that are typically offered against eating meat strike him as weak and unconvincing. Rather, his opposition to eating meat is due to his awareness that this is what his wife thinks, and to his belief that her moral judgment is more reliable than his own. His opposition to eating meat, he tells you, is simply a manifestation of intellectual humility within the moral domain.
Would it ever be reasonable to outsource your moral convictions to another person in this way? Are there or could there be genuine moral experts? If so, how can we identify them? [Are university professors who devote their careers to teaching about ethics good candidates?) ls holding a moral view on the basis of someone else’s testimony just like believing that you should turn left at the next intersection simply because this is what you’ve been told by someone who has a good sense of direction? If not, how is it different, and what might that difference tell us about the nature of morality? It seems utterly natural to defer to the historian about historical facts and to the scientist about scientific facts. Does the fact that it seems much less natural to defer to someone else about moral facts suggest that there actually aren’t any moral facts, and that moral judgments are just expressions of our own feelings of disapproval? What [if anything) is lost by arriving at a moral view by deferring to a reliable authority, as opposed to arriving at that view on the basis of your own appreciation of the reasons for thinking that it’s true?
The aim of this project is to offer compelling answers to these and related questions, in part by constructively engaging with ideas drawn from the Western philosophical and theological traditions. Thus, I further develop and defend Plato’s idea that, even if genuine moral experts exist, identifying such experts presents peculiar difficulties, and I argue that arriving at one’s moral views by deferring to a reliable authority tends to frustrate an important ideal associated with moral agency. I contend that the fact that deference seems to play a significantly more limited role in the moral domain than in many others is not a good reason for skepticism about morality, or for accepting relativist or subjectivist views of morality. I argue that university professors are not good candidates for being full- blown moral experts simply in virtue of their academic training. But I defend the idea that moral deference sometimes delivers full-ﬂedged moral knowledge, and that the virtue of intellectual humility plays an important role in the moral domain as well as in others.