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Thursday, July 6, 2023

An empirical perspective on moral expertise: Evidence from a global study of philosophers

Niv, Y., & Sulitzeanu‐Kenan, R. (2022).
Bioethics, 36(9), 926–935.


Considerable attention in bioethics has been devoted to moral expertise and its implications for handling applied moral problems. The existence and nature of moral expertise has been a contested topic, and particularly, whether philosophers are moral experts. In this study, we put the question of philosophers’ moral expertise in a wider context, utilizing a novel and global study among 4,087 philosophers from 96 countries. We find that despite the skepticism in recent literature, the vast majority of philosophers do believe in moral expertise and in the contribution of philosophical training and experience to its acquisition. Yet, they still differ on what philosophers’ moral expertise consists of. While they widely accept that philosophers possess superior analytic abilities regarding moral matters, they diverge on whether they also possess improved ability to judge moral problems. Nonetheless, most philosophers in our sample believe that philosophers possess an improved ability to both analyze and judge moral problems and that they commonly see these two capacities as going hand in hand. We also point at significant associations between personal and professional attributes and philosophers’ beliefs, such as age, working in the field of moral philosophy, public involvement, and association with the analytic tradition. We discuss the implications of these findings for the debate about moral expertise.

From the Discussion section

First, the distribution of philosophers’ beliefs regarding moral expertise highlights that despite the recent skepticism regarding philosophers’ moral expertise, as expressed in the bioethical literature, the vast majority of philosophers do believe in moral expertise and in the contribution of philosophical training and experience to its acquisition. The view, which holds that philosophers are not moral experts, that is, lack an advantage in both moral analysis and judgment capacities, is held by a relatively small minority (estimated at 10.7%). Yet, the findings suggest that philosophers still differ regarding what their moral expertise consists of and highlight that the crux of the debate is not whether philosophers are better moral analyzers, as a near consensus of 88.33% exists that they are. Rather opinions diverge over whether philosophers are also better moral judgers. We estimated that 38.88% of respondents believe that philosophers are only narrow moral experts while 49.45% of them believe that they are broad moral experts.

These findings can primarily be of great sociological interest. They map the views of a global sample of philosophers regarding the ancient question of the merit of philosophy, reflect what philosophers think their profession enables them to do, and consequently, what they might contribute to society. As our findings indicate, for its practitioners, philosophy is not merely an abstract reflection, but also an endeavor that facilitates moral capabilities that can be of use to handle the moral problems we confront in our daily lives.

Furthermore, we may carefully consider the possibility that the distribution of philosophers’ beliefs can also play an evidential role in the dispute about moral expertise. On the one hand, philosophers, more than others, may be best suited to accurately evaluate the merits and limitations of their capabilities. They have gained extensive experience in reflecting on philosophical matters, thus they might better understand what philosophical inquiry requires and how well they have successfully handled such tasks in the past. Their beliefs might express collective wisdom that indicates what the right answers are. As an illustration, the fact that many physicians, with years of experience in medicine, similarly trust their ability to effectively diagnose and treat illness, gives us good reasons to believe that they are. We have good reasons to believe that physicians will better know their merits and limitations. Therefore, the finding that the majority of philosophers believe that their training and experience grant them better ability to both analyze and judge moral problems offers some evidence in favor of this view.