TRUST ME, I’M AN ETHICIST! The Rights and Wrongs of Consulting Ethics Experts

Some Help Through the Moral Maze

Life in business is packed with ethical decisions. Everything you do has potential ethical ramifications and you’ve somehow got to navigate the right path. Perhaps you need to decide whether a certain use of clients’ data is permissible, whether it’s ok to make major changes to employees’ pension scheme or whether there’s a responsibility to invest in making your business more green. The lawyers might be able to tell you what it’s legal to do, but the challenge is to work out what it’s right to do. Ethical decisions like these are hard: the issues are complicated, the stakes are high and most of us only have minimal training in how to navigate the moral maze. And to make matters worse, there’s a load of psychological studies showing that our ordinary ethical judgements are unreliable and subject to serious biases (Schwitzgebel & Cushman offer a neat summary).

Faced with all this it would be reasonable to conclude that your ethical judgements might not be up to snuff, and that you should call upon the help of an expert. That’s what we normally do when faced with decisions we aren’t in a position to make ourselves: if you have a difficult decision about tax liability, you consult a tax expert; if you want to know what the weather will be like for the office party, you consult a meteorologist. So it stands to reason that if you want to know what the ethical thing to do is, you should consult an ethics expert. After all, there are a wealth of philosophy academics specialising in ethics (not to mention a fair few consultants who sell themselves as ethical experts). So why not call on one of them? Actually, things aren’t quite so straightforward. Being an expert in ethics isn’t like being an expert in tax or weather, and the whole idea of consulting an ethics expert gets us into uncomfortable territory. Philosopher Sarah McGrath notes that this is a bit counter-intuitive.

McGrath bubble

This asymmetry emerges when we look more closely at how we identify experts and how we make use them to guide our decisions.

How do you spot an ethics expert?

The first difficulty with consulting an ethics expert is identifying someone as an ethics expert in the first place. When you’re working out whether someone’s well-placed to help you with your tax policy, you can look at their track record of reducing a business’s tax liability. When working out which weather service to use, you can look at their track record of predicting the weather correctly. But what do you do when looking for an ethics expert? If the weather expert predicts rain you can look out the window to see whether they’re right. But if an ethicist says that certain uses of client data are morally permissible, how do you know whether they’re correct? There’s no record that tells you which of their ethical judgements were true and which turned out to be false. You might be able to check their knowledge of moral theories, or their skills in applying ethical principles, but this won’t give you what you need. Knowing an ethical theory only helps if it’s the right ethical theory and applying ethical principles only helps if they’re the right ethical principles. What you need is someone who knows what the right ethical theories and principles are!

Perhaps you should knuckle down and work out for yourself whether the ethicist’s judgements are right. After all, C.D. Broad points out:

Broad bubble.png

This means there’s nothing to stop you working out for yourself whether an ethics expert has made the right call. The difficulty here is that if you could work out for yourself which judgements are right and wrong, you wouldn’t need an ethics expert anymore! Brad Hooker captures the dilemma nicely:

Hooker bubble

If it takes an expert to know an expert, perhaps you should look at who the community of ethicists identifies as an expert. The difficulty here is that ethics is replete with deeply entrenched disagreements. A pair of ethicists might recognise one another as experts but disagree completely on what the right thing to do is in a situation. This means that if you want to know whose advice to take, knowing who’s recognised as an expert won’t be any use. Worries like this have even pushed some philosophers, like C.D. Broad, to deny that there’s such a thing as an ethics expert.

Trust me, I’m an expert!

You’re already in a bit of a pickle here but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you do manage to identify an ethical expert whose judgements you trust (Matheson et al have suggested some ways of partially overcoming the hurdles above). The next problem is with whether it’s appropriate to defer to their ethical judgements. Your super-reliable tax expert might say ‘I can’t explain to you the methods we used to calculate our recommendation, but if you do this you’ll halve your tax liability’, and your super-reliable weather service might say ‘I can’t explain to you the science behind our prediction, but rain tomorrow is likely.’ In these cases it seems appropriate to defer to the expert’s judgement. The whole point of having an expert is that they know more about the topic at hand than you do, so there comes a point where you have to trust in their expertise. You can reasonably say ‘it doesn’t look like it’ll rain to me, but you’re the expert!’. But things aren’t quite the same for expert ethical judgements. If an ethics expert says ‘you have no responsibility to invest in making your business more green’ there’s something very uncomfortable about replying ‘that doesn’t sound ethical to me, but you’re the expert’. Brad Hooker captures this asymmetry:

Hooker bubble 2

Now things are looking really bad. Even if you manage to identify someone who reliably makes the right ethical judgements, there’s something ethically problematic about deferring to their advice!

A Better Approach

What should we make of all this? Should we scrap the idea of finding and using ethical experts and just stick to struggling through the moral maze by ourselves? I don’t think that’s the right response. Instead, I think we should change our expectations of what an ethics expert can offer. I’ve been talking as if an ethics expert is an expert in judging what’s right and wrong. The real value of an ethical expert is actually much more subtle. Rather than telling you what’s right and wrong, a good ethics expert will be able to:

  • Help you recognise ethical issues and ask the right ethical questions
  • Provide you with new concepts to help you think through ethical problems
  • Facilitate systematic ethical decision-making

The real contribution of ethicists is captured neatly by Jan Crosthwaite:

Crosthwaite bubble

Even in cases where your ethics expert expresses their own ethical judgements, they should convince you that a certain course of action is right rather than expecting you take it on authority. A true ethics expert will never say ‘Trust me, I’m an ethics expert!’

Overall, consulting ethics experts can be a valuable part of ethical business management. Identifying someone who can tell you what’s right or wrong is problematic, but identifying a skilled ethical cartographer needn’t be. Deferring to an ethics expert’s judgement is morally dubious, but letting them help you navigate the ethical terrain might be the most responsible thing to do. Ethical expertise isn’t about making your ethical judgements for you – it’s about helping you to make those judgements for yourself. Why think I’m right about this? Trust me, I’m a philosopher!



C.D. Broad, Ethics and the History of Philosophy, London: Routledge (1952)

Brad Hooker (1998), ‘Moral Expertise’ in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 6, pp. 509–11

Eric Schwitzgebel & Fiery Cushman (2012), ‘Expertise in Moral Reasoning? Order Effects
on Moral Judgment in Professional Philosophers and Non-Philosophers’ Mind & Language, 27(2), pp. 135–153.

Jan Crosthwaite (1995), ‘Moral Expertise: A Problem in the Professional Ethics of Professional Ethicists’, Bioethics, 9(5), pp. 661-379.

Jonathan Matheson, Scott McElreath & Nathan Nobis ‘Moral Experts, Deference and Disagreement’ forthcoming in Moral Expertise: New Essays from Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives.

Sarah McGrath (2011), ‘Skepticism about Moral Expertise as a Puzzle for Moral Realism’, Journal of Philosophy, 108 (3), pp. 111-137.


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