Can Testimony be Moral Knowledge?

I’ve been reading a paper by Karen Jones about testimony and moral knowledge. The question is basically this: can we ever learn moral facts from other people, or do we have to come up on them by ourselves? Intuitively – and most philosophers have agreed – the nature of moral knowledge means we have to learn it on our own. It’s like knowing how to ride a bicycle. You can’t just be told how, you have to try it out and develop the know-how yourself.

Imagine if you asked somebody why murder was wrong, and they responded by saying “oh, my parents told me”. Such an answer would provoke astonishment at the very least. What kind of psychopath hasn’t figured out for himself that murder is wrong? It is the kind of thing that grown adults expect other grown adults to understand, not just take on faith.

Jones disagrees with all this. She gives as her example sexist behaviour in a communal living arrangement: two women try to kick a man out for his perceived sexism. A second man asks for examples of the sexism and is told that it was just a way of looking at them, or an attitude during conversations. The second man can’t understand how this constitutes sexism. Should he accept that this kind of behaviour is wrong on faith, or should he stick to what he knows and demand that the first man stay in the house?

Jones thinks that it is possible to have expertise in particular areas of ethics. A woman who has suffered from sexism all her life, Jones says, is a better judge of what particular behaviours are sexist or not (and therefore what behaviours are wrong or right) than an average man. This can easily be generalized down all axes of oppression.

In certain contexts, according to Jones, we should simply trust the moral judgements of those with more experience than us. We do this all the time as children, Jones points out, as we learn about ethics. Remember the first example I mentioned? Perhaps what we should accept is that this learning process never really stops.

(By the way, it’s exam time over here. That’s why posts have been infrequent the past few weeks. Regular service should return shortly.)

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