Moral Expertise Research Paper

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Moral expertise can be characterized as a domain independent faculty of critical thinking in questions of morality and ethics. Contemporary debate about moral expertise comprises efforts to identify and delineate the expertise of ethicists as a distinct professional group. However, the concept of moral expertise raises questions because some consider it contrary to the democratic ideas of equality and participation to bestow a community of professionals with knowledge about moral right or wrong. Others doubt the validity of moral expertise because of a lack of, or impossibility to find, agreed-upon criteria of moral truth. Contemporary search for such criteria is linked to the question of whether there can be rules for ethicists as a distinct professional group in institutional environments, e.g., healthcare organizations and the involvement of ethicists as witnesses in court. More recently, several authors focus on moral competence of professionals (and citizens), instead of a distinct expertise of ethicists. Modest or dialogical concepts of “ethical” or “ethics” expertise have been suggested to relate the expertise of ethicists to the competence of non-ethicists and vice versa. This change of focus corresponds to a change of the role of ethicists from expert to educator, moderator, as well as scholar.


Defined as a domain-independent faculty of critical thinking in questions of morality of ethics, moral expertise has been differentiated into two varieties: first, the proficiency to critically reason about morality (epistemic moral expertise) and, second, knowledge of moral right or wrong for the purpose of living a good life (per formative moral expertise) (Weinstein 1994). Although being domain-independent itself, scholarly debates about the moral expertise tend to originate from, and are often related to, a specific domain or context, predominately rendering it an effort of critical (self-)awareness and (self-)appreciation of ethicists as a profession.

In the first paragraph (history and development), ideas related to moral expertise will be collected from the history of philosophy, based on a line of reasoning set out by Rasmussen (2005). Some of these ideas may be interpreted as moral proto-expertise. The emergence of the scholarly debate about moral expertise will be briefly summarized. In the second paragraph, concepts and definitions will be set out. In the third paragraph, the ethical dimension and relevance of the notion of moral expertise for bioethics will be discussed before a brief summary will conclude the entry. In the later parts of the entry, the more modest and mundane term ethics expertise (Rasmussen 2011) will be used next to the notion of moral expertise. This is to amplify the dialogical idea of expertise related to the moral competence of those with whom ethicists cooperate in institutions of public life (Steinkamp et al. 2008a). Next to expertise, the notion of moral competence of professionals becomes more important in recent years, causing the role of ethicists to change from expert to educator, moderator, and scholar (Lindemann, and Verkerk 2014).

History And Development

Aristotle (384–322 BC) – in a theory of the (intellectual) virtue of phronesis (= practical wisdom; acquired knowledge to do the right thing in the right place at the right time) – portrays the phronimos (= a person in high command of practical wisdom) as an embodiment of morality (see Rasmussen 2005). Practical wisdom in the Aristotelian sense is not an innate idea instilled in all moral agents. Rather, few individuals are believed to live up to the level to fully acquire it. As a mean between extremes, to be virtuous requires careful deliberation and practical decision-making. Wisdom is acquired through habituation during years of such practice. Belonging to the few who have succeeded in doing so, the phronimos becomes a proto-expert to guide others to moral prudence.

David Hume (1711–1776) aims to improve the knowledge to discern true philosophical from false expertise as to the sentiments and customs of daily moral life. Rasmussen points to both a negative and a positive task a philosopher may derive from such discernment. The negative task is to refrain from the pride of building (pretentious) systems and theories. The positive task is to refine and moderate one’s passions, to investigate into the principles of life, and to participate in public debate. Rather than reason about abstract ethical principles, a moral expert employing Hume’s approach in contemporary bioethics would delve into the ramifications of healthcare practice to study and understand the lived morality it contains.

John Stuart Mill, on the contrary, suggests to evaluate everyday morality in the light of a single moral idea: the principle of the greatest good for the largest number of people. To proceed from everyday morality to the principle, Mill employs empirical knowledge, knowledge of the human character, as well as familiarity with rules of common utility. Rasmussen argues that, while Mill’s approach resembles Aristotle’s in that he considers full expertise in matters of morality a quality reached by only a few, an additional element of his moral philosophy is what can be coined externalism: For a moral expert it suffices to be knowledgeable and skilled in the methods of moral investigation and reasoning. An obligation to excel in lived moral integrity may not be conferred from this. A majority of contemporary ethicists tend to agree to this position.

Elaborating on a distinction between epistemology and therapy, Griffin Trotter (Rasmussen 2005) develops a typology of ethics expertise ensued from pragmatist philosophy. In contemporary pluralistic societies with their lack of a unifying morality, Trotter distinguishes between (a) a theoretical expert familiar with moral theory, (b) an inquirer of the differences between right and wrong, (c) an anthropological surveyor of people’s customs, and (d) a counselor to help people and communities to improve morally. The predominance of the epistemic aspects of ethics expertise in this typology corresponds to its prevalence in the contemporary academic debate about moral expertise in general.

Lessons learned from earlier philosophical reflections on moral expertise can be summarized as follows: (1) The idea of a special knowledge and particular skills as to questions of morality is a familiar concept in philosophy. (2) Moral expertise can comprise both knowledge of moral right or wrong and knowledge how to reason morally in a sound way. (3) Familiarity with morality needs (and ought) to be acquired through study and practice. (4) Depending on an author’s philosophical preference, such study and practice can focus either on the diversity of moral sentiments and customs or on moral principle(s) or on combinations between these two. (5) A high level of familiarity with morality may yet will not necessarily make the expert a morally good person (and vice versa). (6) Without taking a stand as to whether or not moral expertise can be entirely externalist, predominance of the epistemic aspect of moral expertise appears to be an important key to understand current debates. (7) Finally, philosophers have been aware that moral expertise is only one of a number of aspects contributing to an individual becoming either a virtuous (morally upright) person or a professional ethicist or any combination of these.

The contemporary debate about moral (ethical, ethics) expertise starts off around 1970 with Australian philosopher Peter Singer arguing that, having had the privilege to study concepts and theories of moral philosophy for years, an ethicist’s judgment about matters of morality would generally be more consistent and true than a non-ethicist’s judgments (Singer 1972). Related to the emergence of ethicists as a distinct professional group in the second half of the twentieth century, Sheryl Noble points to other than philosophical aspects of the debate, namely, primarily sociological and political theories (Noble 1982). This is to stress limits of a mere deductive, “engineering” approach to moral expertise in adequately grasping the conditions of the emergence of ethicists as a professional group. For a deeper understanding, careful study of the social conditions and context seems to be preferable.

In controversies before and during the drafting of the “Core Competencies for Healthcare Ethics Consultation” of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), claiming moral expertise for a distinct group of professionals was exposed to – sometimes fierce – critique (Scofield 2008a). Skeptics have complained that ethicists had failed to agree upon univocal criteria of professionalism. In a more radical fashion, doubts were, and continue to be, expressed whether it is possible to agree upon such criteria in the first place. Furthermore, the idea of moral expertise was considered at odds with the idea of a liberal democratic society granting every citizen equal rights to determine and articulate moral preferences for him or herself.

Within the realm of clinical ethics, modest concepts of moral expertise have been suggested. For example, Rasmussen (2011) prefers the term “ethics expertise,” instead of using the adjectives “moral” or “ethical.” Her intention is to avoid the ambiguity of the term “ethical,” which could be misunderstood to require the expertise itself to be ethical. Furthermore, she wishes to limit the claim of expertise to a less controversial idea of proficiency to address, and reasoning about, moral issues in specific domains. In clinical ethics, it turns out to be important to show how a modest concept of ethics expertise relates to the moral wisdom and competence of those with whom ethicists cooperate (e.g., by education, facilitation of deliberations, etc.) and how such a concept can be implemented in organizations of public life (Steinkamp et al. 2008a, b).

A recent philosophical discussion about moral expertise in general terms emerged as a series of answers to German philosopher Bernward Gesang, who argues that both deductivism and coherence theories of moral truth substantiate the assumption that “moral experts exist in some way” (Gesang 2010, p. 158). With this recent move, the debate has re-approximated its original domain-independent status. Notwithstanding this revival of the original debate, however, some authors involved in clinical ethics (mainly around centers of clinical ethics in Europe) have argued that other than an abstract and detached and therefore often irrelevant idea of a distinct ethics expertise, the moral competence of all stakeholders in the field (e.g., doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, pharmacists) ought to be investigated into. This in turn would change the way ethicists are looked at: Instead of detached experts, ethicists would be considered (and approached) as trained educators, facilitators, or advisors who make others aware of the moral wisdom that everyone involved in responsible (professional) action “already has.”

Conceptual Clarification And Definition

Expertise can be defined as the possession, at a high level, of knowledge and skills in a limited subject area, e.g., in a profession. In the Compact Oxford English Dictionary it is succinctly defined as “great skill or knowledge in a particular field.” Closely related to expertise is the concept of competence. The latter is a narrower concept, primarily referring to skills. Competence has been defined as the quality or extent of being competent. This means to have a capacity to adequately function or develop in relation to a defined class of skills.

The relatively wide scope of expertise is confirmed by Weinstein (1994), who includes both epistemic and per formative aspects into the notion of moral expertise. Along the lines of a distinction of different types of ethical reasoning, epistemic moral expertise entails (a) descriptive, (b) normative, and (c) meta-ethical reasoning. Whereas in descriptive and meta-ethical reasoning, expertise can hardly be considered controversial, normative moral expertise attracts most of the criticism in contemporary debate. A reason for this criticism lies in an ambiguity of the idea of normative expertise in ethics: Other than from a bluntly externalist point of view, it is not sufficiently clear whether this type of expertise is limited to the philosophical reasoning about moral judgments or whether it includes the expertise to find justified normative answers to substantial moral questions. In Weinstein’s view, epistemic expertise is limited to making strongly justified statements about descriptive, normative, and meta-ethical propositions. Judgments about how to live a good life are not included in this narrow concept of moral expertise.

Next to the term moral expertise, some scholars have coined other terms, for example, ethical or ethics expertise. According to Rasmussen (2011), ethics expertise is a weaker (Gesang 2010) and modest term relating to a dialogical (Steinkamp et al. 2008a) or contextual interpretation of the expertise of ethicists, situated in the cooperation with professionals in respective social environments (e.g., healthcare professionals in healthcare institutions or social workers in community care). In this entry, both terms – moral expertise and ethics expertise – are used simultaneously: The first expression refers to Weinstein’s concept of expertise as “the capacity to provide strong justifications for claims” (Weinstein 1994, p. 67); the second one takes into account that ethicists are primarily trained to expertly use ethical reasoning, while the input of other professionals cooperating with professional ethicists can strengthen the empirical and intuitive basis of the reflective equilibrium of ethics judgment. These terminological differences reflect a general diversion between morals (= the entirety of lived morality) and ethics (= methodological thinking and deliberating about this morality).

In more recent debates about moral case deliberation in clinical ethics in Europe, expertise and competence have been approached from such a dialogical point of view. Assuming that moral case deliberation, other than ethics consultation, focuses on the deliberative process rather than the ethics expert’s judgment, the point of departure is the healthcare professionals’ tacit as well as explicit moral knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Compared to the ethics facilitation approach favored by the ASBH task force on core competencies of ethics consultation, the ethicist’s role is not to be an expert on moral judgment annex facilitation, but to be a Socratic moderator whose expertise is paramount to facilitating professionals to explicate their implicit morality. It is obvious that this most recent way of thinking about moral expertise faces conceptual as well as moral problems in quite a different way compared to the “traditional” way of assuming a detached moral expertise (Lindemann and Verkerk 2014).

Ethical Dimension

Specifying The Notion Of Moral Expertise

 Ethically the most controversial appears to be normative moral expertise. Two aspects of critique will be discussed: first, the allegation that the idea of ethics expertise is incompatible with a supposed equality of citizens in democratic societies and, second, the presumption that there is no such thing as ethics expertise, either due to the failure of ethicists to agree upon a set of criteria to delineate the profession or due to the reasoning that there cannot be a rational basis for ethics expertise in the first place. In the remainder of this entry, it is assumed that the possibility of ethics expertise indeed depends on the availability of a rational foundation of moral propositions, that particular sorts of moral expertise interrelate with particular ideas as to the professional role and responsibility of ethicists, and finally that “weak” or “modest” ethics (“semi-”) expertise of professionals has a close connection with, and can be strengthened by relating it to, the moral competence of those (citizens, professionals, etc.) who lack particular professional training and study in ethics yet have well-developed empirical (nonmoral) and intuitive (moral) judgment thanks to their professional training and practice.

Moral Expertise And Democracy: Issues Of (In) Compatibility

The argument for incompatibility of moral expertise and democracy can be summarized as follows:

P1a: Democracy (as a political system) presupposes equality of all members of a respective population.

P1b: Equality includes equal participation of everyone in the deliberation about questions of morality.

P2: The notion of moral expertise implies that particular members of a population are given privileged access to, and command over, morality.

C: Therefore, there is at least tension between moral expertise and democracy, or, as some argue, both notions may even be incompatible.

The argument presupposes a wide notion of moral expertise both performative (to live a good life) and epistemic (to substantiate normative statements).

A strategy to oppose this critique would be to narrow down the notion of moral expertise to a less controversial, modest (either epistemic or dialogical) ethics expertise (Rasmussen 2011). Ethics expertise of ethicists then relates to, and can help to develop and articulate, the moral competence of others without professional training in ethics. Instead of giving expert advice, an ethics expert would rather assist others to verbalize their moral competence they “already” have, in order to help them develop and articulate practical wisdom. As this is an interactive process, a modest and dialogical concept of ethics expertise implies that the “expert” becomes a learner, educator, facilitator, and scholar (Lindemann and Verkerk 2014).

It has been argued that a modest and dialogical notion of ethics expertise is compatible to democracy (Schicktanz and Dusche 2011). Democracy is a form of government, where the people elect representatives for decision-making. It is useful to distinguish between different responsibilities. Political decision-makers are responsible for government policy; they are not experts or technocrats. During the early stages of a decision-making on complex issues, representatives seek knowledge and advice from professional advisors or (mixed) committees, including ethicists, in order to inform themselves about relevant aspects of the issues at stake. One of the basic ideas of democratic societies is that everyone ought to be entitled to choose for him or herself. However, the validity of this statement is limited in two ways when it comes to choices in complex matters requiring a multi-professional input.

The first limitation has to do with representative democracy, where decision-making is partly transferred to delegates. It is essential that the procedures of this transfer as well as all of its restrictions be clearly and openly agreed upon. Experts can gather and provide reliable information to aid the representatives with their task. In the end, however, responsibility for making the decisions rests with the representatives (WeberHassemer 2008).

A similar distinction can be made in the practice of ethics consultation in healthcare, business, or other organizations. Ethicists clarify, analyze, provide information, and suggest options. Clinicians or economists remain responsible for decision-making. Ethics experts normally would not, and in fact they never should, make treatment or business decisions themselves.

The claim that expertise in ethical reasoning is incompatible with democratic, non-authoritarian deliberation therefore turns out to be problematic. Deliberation and authority can be reconciled as long as authority, including the authority of an expert, is acquired on the basis of accomplishment and credibility, not coercion. If this condition is met, expertise is not necessarily authoritarian. This implies that an ethics expert need not, and sometimes ought not, to limit him or herself to merely mirroring the judgments of others. Rather, it implies that ethicists may have a responsibility, if necessary, to point out when propositions are blatantly incorrect and to demonstrate that he or she is sufficiently capable and courageous to dispute others.

Ethics expertise can thus be considered reconcilable with representative democracy as long as side constraints clearly and transparently safeguard both the autonomy of citizens and the authority of experts.

The second limitation has to do with the peculiarities of responsibility in professional organizations. Although many societal institutions, for example, the doctor-patient relationship and the wider context of healthcare institutions (much less in business institutions), have undergone change as a result of critique of antidemocratic traditions, considerations about democracy are of relative value when it comes to the function of ethics expertise and moral competence in decision-making.

The reason is that in organizations, ethics expertise is not primarily related to the free exchange of opinions between citizens, but to the less arbitrary exchange of experience and judgment among professionals and between professionals and their clients (e.g., patients). Although these contextual details render ethical expertise less problematic, they still require modesty and wisdom on the side of the ethics expert and safeguards on the institutional (meso-) and societal (macro-)levels both to guarantee professional standards (e.g., of ethicists; see Loewy and Loewy 2005) and to facilitate moral deliberation.

The Possibility Of Expertise In Moral Questions

Related to what could be referred to as the “incompatibility-of-democracy-and-moralexpertise argument,” Scofield (2008a) warns that leaving moral judgment to a limited group of professional experts may have negative social consequences. It could undermine individual citizens’ autonomy by prescribing what they should decide and how. From this he not only infers ethical expertise and democracy being incompatible but continues that the alleged incompatibility may result in the debate being intractable because it finally would constitute a “tragic choice”:

Because there are problems associated with allowing everyone to choose as seems best to them and problems with permitting everyone to choose only as seems best to others, we understandably come to see that there are problems associated with our having ethics consultants and problems associated with our not having ethics consultants. (Scofield 2008b, p. 379)

A reliable notion of expertise in normative ethics presupposes some form of cognitivism. For an ethicist to have coherent moral or ethics expertise, it would be essential that he or she is able to give rational reasons in favor of one conclusion instead of another. Next to cognitivism, a clear differentiation between morals and ethics helps to clearly delineate between epistemic (ethics) expertise and performative (moral) expertise. A pragmatic reason that morality and ethics are often short-circuited may be that both terms tend to be used as synonyms in some debates. “If one equates morality with ethics – and the terms are used interchangeably by the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and others – non-ethicists are, at best, two stages below (or beneath) ethicists” (Scofield 2008b, p. 370).

If ethics and morality were synonyms, any form of specialized access to ethical knowledge, including any derived activity, for example, facilitation or counseling by a person trained in ethical reasoning, would imply the consultant’s superiority over their consultees. In moral philosophy, however, the terms ethics and morals/morality have been differentiated in (at least) two ways. First, according to Wolfgang Kuhlmann, (formal) morality and (substantial) ethical life represent two different dimensions, namely, substantial moral values, norms, and judgments (ethical life, in German, Sittlichkeit) on the one hand and formal as well as universalistic ethical principles and norms (in German, Moralitat) on the other (Kuhlmann 1986).

Second, according to a widespread terminological agreement in bioethics, the terms are used vice versa. “Morality” represents the sum total of substantial moral values, norms, and judgments shared and agreed upon within a larger social framework – e.g., a society, a state, a religious community, or an institution. The term “ethics” instead refers to philosophical reflections about morality, typically elaborated into an argumentative system.

The latter distinction between ethics and morality is common both in bioethics and in analytic philosophy in broader terms. It implies that a methodical, intellectual approach to common and ordinary human activities is situated at a different level than the activities themselves – i.e., a metalevel. For example, “being an ethics expert” is not the same as “making moral judgments,” which is indeed a common human activity, in a similar way that “being a caregiver” is not the same as “taking care of oneself,” which almost every human being is able to do if circumstances are favorable. The difference between the two levels allows for the existence of special expertise, situated at a meta-level with regard to common human activities. Such expertise is not contradictory or antagonistic to the more basic level, but it incorporates a systematic reflection upon and generalization of moral experience and judgment about that basic level of common human activities.

With an addition by Dieter Birnbacher (1999), Singer argues that ethicists can be considered sufficiently familiar with ethical theories, relevant details, and the factual moral codes in different societies. Furthermore, because of their privilege of having had sufficient time for dedicated study and practice, ethicists – by definition – may have particular faculties at a higher level than others without training in ethics, namely, (1) to be familiar with moral arguments, (2) to infer correctly, (3) to be familiar with moral concepts, (4) to be able to study moral problems more deeply and over more time than other people, (5) to have the ability to empathize with other people, and (6) to have some self-awareness, meaning to be able to discover and defeat their own prejudices (Gesang 2010).

According to Gesang (2010), adherence to a particular kind of ethics expertise corresponds to the theory of justification of ethical judgments that is preferred. In applied ethics, the most prevalent theories of justification are deductivism and coherentism. In deductivism, a moral judgment is reached by deducing judgments from moral principles via mixed norms to a conclusion. According to coherentism, which currently is a widely accepted approach, elements of moral judgment are related to each other without being subordinated to a deductive hierarchy. Justification of a moral judgment is reached if and when moral intuitions, premoral empirical propositions, principles of commonsense morality, and elements of ethical theory (principles, norms, values, virtues, etc.) are brought into a reflective equilibrium.

Gesang (2010) argues that although in a reflective equilibrium there is no hierarchy as to the moral or premoral elements of an argumentation, there are differences when applying this concept to the justification of a moral judgment within a particular (professional) context. An ethicist – when involved in ethics facilitation and counseling in a professional context – most probably will have less insight in the premoral empirical elements of reasoning, while normative analysis belongs to their core competency. In the case of other professionals (doctors, nurses, social workers, etc.), the balance will most probably be vice versa: Professionals in a team are experts in their profession, including domain-specific moral competence. An ethicist’s task can be to enter and facilitate a joint learning process to enable professionals to verbalize their own morality and articulate coherent moral arguments to substantiate their decisions.

Besides practical experience, theoretical considerations like these have caused contributors to the debate to suggest:

– That ethics expertise is rather a weak, “semi-,” or secondary expertise when related to the substantial matters of judgment in professional organizations (Gesang 2010)

– That a weaker (dialogical) term “ethics expertise” appears to be more acceptable in the given context than a stronger term of “moral expertise” (Rasmussen 2011)

– That, in professional organizations, the expertise of an ethicist will be a complement of the technical or field expertise of other (non-ethicist) professionals and vice versa (Steinkamp et al. 2008b)

– And finally that, when taking over a more dialogical and complementary role in professional organizations, the responsibility of an ethicist will change from expert to learner, educator, facilitator, and scholar process in Western countries, one can expect that emergence of ethicists as a professional group in developing countries will help explore this from the bottom up, by those who need to investigate the conditions and content of their own professional activities.

Practical Implications Of A Moderate, Dialogical Concept Of Ethics Expertise In Relation To The Moral Competence Of Professionals Or Citizens

Loewy and Loewy (2005, pp. 76 ff.) argue that criteria of expertise at a general level could best be developed as part of professional self-regulation, complying with the following conditions:

  1. A profession must have a moral – as opposed to merely a technical – end.
  2. A profession must serve the public good.
  3. Members of a profession have to be knowledgeable in a prescribed number of subject areas.
  4. A body of theoretical underpinnings and formal mechanism of access into the profession ought to be established.
  5. A profession establishes its own criteria of professionalism.
  6. Mechanisms ought to be established to guarantee compliance with criteria of professionalism.
  7. A profession must be self-policing.

Ethical Concerns Are Global: Many Ethical Concepts Are Western

The discussion about moral/ethics expertise has in part been a philosophical debate about domain independent moral expertise; for the other part it has been a context-related discussion exploring self-reflection, self-appreciation, and self-critique of ethicists as an emerging professional group. In the most elaborate form, this path has been followed in clinical ethics. Put into a global perspective, the debate about moral/ethics expertise up until now has primarily been a Western phenomenon. What this means in the context of developing countries remains yet to be explored. Similar to the learning


A brief view into the history of philosophy shows that moral expertise can be considered a domain independent ability to reason about morality. In organizations of postindustrial Western societies, ethicists have emerged as a distinct professional group. This professional group is still in the process of finding a professional identity. The notions of moral or ethics expertise have had an important function in delineating a professional identity of ethicists in specific environments, for example, in healthcare organizations. It has been shown that moral and ethics expertise are controversial notions. Developments in the direction of more democratic participations of citizens in institutional life have been seen to initiate changes in both the role and responsibilities of ethicists and the concept of moral or ethics expertise. Ethicists of the future will use their specific qualifications to become learners, educators, facilitators, and scholars. The fact that debates on moral and ethics deliberation first and foremost have been a phenomenon of postindustrial Western societies leaves room for future ethicists in the developing world to spell out their own categories of expertise from the bottom up. The goal of this development is that not only moral challenges but also our ethical concepts and organizational solutions become more and more global on the one hand while being context sensitive on the other.

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