Can Moral Testimony Result in Moral Knowledge?
Often, people trust one another as sources of information about phenomena occurring around them, and depend heavily on friends, acquaintances, or even complete strangers for responses to their questions in life. What is the best solution for this problem? Does this restaurant provide the best meals? These questions of philosophy have been at the heart of philosophical debate throughout history, and boil down to the question: can moral philosophy result in moral knowledge? In other words, is it reasonable to acquire one’s beliefs on the testimonies offered by others? Many philosophers have attempted to provide answers to this question linking moral testimony and moral knowledge have offered contradictory responses to this pertinent philosophical question. In this paper, I explore the positions presented by both sides of the debate, and argue that the pessimist view that moral testimony cannot result in moral knowledge holds due to its strong arguments.
Among many scholars of philosophy, there is a contra-argument existing between optimists and pessimists of moral testimony that moral testimony can or cannot lead to moral knowledge. Pessimists of moral testimony often believe that many reasons exist against the legitimacy of forming moral knowledge on the moral testimony offered by others, though they do not consider moral testimony as entirely valueless, as it may be applicable in certain situations such children’s learning, and by adults on non-moral issues upon which they can formulate their moral perspectives. In this sense, it is considered legitimate to ask others of their advice on moral issues and to take their response seriously. At, maturity, according to pessimists, adults should not rely on moral testimony as their source of knowledge.
Conversely, optimists of moral testimony believe that there is no dissimilarity between trusting moral testimony and trusting non-moral factual issues. According to optimists, one can acquire moral or non-moral knowledge by trusting moral testimony. As such there are no reasons that should prevent one from obtaining knowledge from moral testimony. But this is not to say that one should always trust moral testimony as a source of moral knowledge, especially when the source of such moral testimony may be considered as untrustworthy, inexperienced, and unreliable as well as being unknowledgeable about a matter of fact. This optimistic view is explored by Hopkins (2007). However, Hopkins also appreciates the role of moral testimony and argues that the most appropriate explanation although moral testimony potentially results in knowledge, there are moral and non-moral reasons why we should not use it. Generally, it is accepted that a great deal of what forms peoples’ beliefs is based on the testimony of others, with many explanations offered in philosophical research concerning the validity of obtaining knowledge in this manner, though little has been mentioned as to whether moral testimony can be relied upon as a valid source of moral knowledge (Hopkins 2007).
According to Hopkins (2007), one of the staunch optimists, moral testimony does not create moral knowledge, but passes it on, and if a given fact can be known, it can be passed on to another person through the use of testimony. However, such optimism does automatically imply that we can or should always believe in another person’s moral testimony; that would amount to gullibility which is undesirable in moral matters as is the case of amoral matters. The reason for this is the potential interlocutor might be mistaken or bear intention to mislead us, hence the need to guard against these potential infelicities. However, there is no typological difference existing between moral and non-moral issues as it concerns taking testimony, and therefore testimony is a valid source of moral belief, a position rejected by those with a pessimistic position.
There several reasons why moral testimony is considered to not be able to create moral result in moral knowledge. First, as the pessimist argue, there no such thing as moral knowledge. Testimony is considered as a mechanism of learning from others, and having the knowledge of what they know, but as to whether is hands on moral knowledge is out of the question, yet there is apparently no moral knowledge to pass on, as morality is an issue of opinion and feelings which express sentiments and not knowledge (Hopkins 2007: p. 615). Moreover, moral assertions cannot be demarcated into true or false. In this light, moral testimony cannot be relied upon as a transmitter of moral knowledge. In support of this pessimist view, Hopkins argues that there can never be nay testimony on moral matters. However, this view has been criticized for its implicit ignorance of the role of scrutiny and deliberation on matters related moral questions.
Second, pessimists argue that moral knowledge is the wrong type of knowledge. This account accepts the existence of moral knowledge, rather it disputes whether it is the right kind that leads to some kind of action; it is considered as “knowledge-how rather than knowledge-that” (Hopkins 2007: p. 617). The argument is that knowledge–how cannot be passed on through moral testimony, and moral testimony cannot be a platform through which moral knowledge gets passed on. Although one learns the know-how from others who already possess it, through their testimony, such testimony can only result in belief, and not moral knowledge. Conversely, this view fails to completely achieve its intended effect, by ignoring the role of the acquired belief in its claim of non-propositional knowledge-how (Hopkins 2007: p. 619). In other words, the so-called knowledge-how cannot be considered as being completely free of belief, and any beliefs acquired are warranted.
A third argument offered by the pessimists is that concerning moral disagreements and one’s confidence in their testimonial interlocutor. Testimonial knowledge depends on reliable informants for it to hold (Hopkins 2007: p. 620). Nonetheless, morality lacks those who can be considered reliable informants, given that there are too many incongruities on moral matters for one to consider their informant as being reliable. The differences of perspectives exist because of distortion of judgment through interest, and its prevalence undermines the confidence would have on the reliance on informants of moral matters. Consequently, testimony obtained from such informants cannot be regarded as legitimate. In other words testimony cannot create legitimate moral knowledge. However, the optimists, in opposition to this argument, argue that this account overplays the seriousness of such moral disagreement being discussed, and is not sufficient enough to discredit moral testimony in its creation of moral knowledge (Hopkins 2007: p. 621).
Pessimists have also questioned the importance of moral matters. Generally, depending on the subject matter, there is need to be accurate about its factual issues. How important accuracy of the topic is impacts what is considered legitimate source of belief, and more important topics will require self-thought in order to minimize potential risk of error (Hopkins 2007: p. 621). Most non-moral matters that are not particularly important, learning them from testimony may be considered legitimate. On the other hand, moral matters are normally considered adequately important to demand self-thought.
There many reasons suggested in philosophical debate concerning why one may consider moral knowledge acquired through moral testimony as legitimate (Hilson 2009: 96). For those who believe that moral testimony can lead to moral knowledge, it does not rigidly imply that moral testimony is always the source of moral knowledge, but it points to the fact that under certain circumstances, moral testimony may be relied upon as the justification of knowledge. The first reason, this could result from our concern regarding our ability to undertake fair judgment of a moral issue without bias. Another reason is that there are people who are better equipped than others to make specific kinds of moral judgments. For instance, if you to ask someone why they believe in a given proposition. If they believe it is windy, it is reasonable to accept their answer that somebody else told them. If they believe that smoking cigarette is wrong, we ought not to accept, as final, an answer that somebody else told them, but we would interested in them providing further reasons in order to believe their claim rather than a different claim. Under such situations, it means that moral engagement, importantly, involves a lot of exchanges between reasons and arguments. As such, and in accordance with (Hilson 2009: 98)’s perspective, people can and should try to find advice on moral matters, but they should not rely wholly on the judgments of other people.
In conclusion, it is clear that by majority, those who take the position that moral testimony cannot result in moral knowledge have offered convincing arguments as support for their claims (Hislon 2009). For those belonging to this school of thought, one may not have moral knowledge on a matter of fact even if their belief turns out be accurate. According to Hopkins (2007), in order to justifiably believe in a moral testimonial proposition, one must understand the underlying morals reasons and assumptions.