Moral Testimony

Author: Annaleigh Curtis
Category: Epistemology, Ethics
Word Count: 957

We often trust each other to provide information about the world. What is the weather like? Are the noodles good here? What is the best way to get downtown without a car? We routinely ask these sorts of questions and rely on the responses of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.

This essay will explore whether we can do the same for moral questions. If a friend or stranger tells me that lying to protect someone’s feelings is morally permissible, should I believe her? Many philosophers who have considered this sort of question have been uneasy with the idea that anyone should accept another’s assessment of a moral issue in the same way that we think it is perfectly fine to accept an assessment of weather or noodles, while others argue that this unease is unwarranted.

Suppose we ask the question this way: can moral testimony result in moral knowledge? That is, can someone telling me that lying to protect someone’s feelings is morally permissible justify my believing that this is so? Some philosophers say ‘yes,’ some say ‘no,’ and here I lay out each basic position.

The Conversation

1. Option 1: No, moral testimony cannot result in moral knowledge.

This is the most common answer to the question among philosophers. To see some of the appeal of this answer, consider an example, due to McGrath (2009). Suppose I want to know whether eating meat is morally permissible. I could think about it myself, read up on the issue, and make my own decision. Or I could just ask my friend and believe whatever she tells me to believe. If I take the latter route, am I now entitled to believe that eating meat is not okay? It does not seem like I am. In terms of our question from before, I will not have moral knowledge on this question even if my belief turns out to be correct.

If it is true that I will not have moral knowledge even if I get things right, what explains this? The main answer philosophers have given is something like this: part of what it means to be justified in believing a moral proposition is that one understands the moral reasons behind it (cf. Hopkins (2007) and Nickel (2001)). Imagine asking a person why she believes some proposition. If she believes that it is raining, we would accept as an answer that her colleague told her so. If she believes that eating meat is not okay, we should not accept the explanation that a colleague told her so as a final answer. Instead we would want her to explain the reasons to believe this rather than an alternative position. Part of what is going on here is that exchanging reasons and arguments seems like a very important part of moral engagement. We can and should seek out advice on moral issues, but we should not accept wholesale the judgments of others (See Wolff (1970)).

Recall that I had phrased the question initially as asking whether a person can gain moral knowledge as a result of accepting testimony, but then I started talking about understanding, not knowledge. Hills argues that moral testimony can sometimes result in moral knowledge, but that it cannot result in moral understanding for the reasons already explored above.1 So it may turn out that the terms of this debate need refinement, but the general views expressed by the people I have grouped together in this section are similarly cautious about the role of moral testimony.

2. Option 2: Yes, moral testimony can result in moral knowledge.

Note that this option does not require that moral testimony always, or even usually, results in moral knowledge. It means that moral testimony may, under some conditions, be able to justify moral knowledge. Karen Jones (1999) approaches this question by suggesting that our reactions to some cases of trusting someone else on a moral question are not as clear as others.

Here is a variation of Jones’s example. Ted is at a party with Sally. As they walk home, Sally notes that one of the party-goers made her uncomfortable. Pressed to say why, she finds it difficult to explain that he did not seem to respect her or other women at the party, that he made some offhand comments she interpreted as sexist, and so on. Ted was with Sally all night, but did not notice any of this. Should Ted believe that the party-goer has behaved in a morally objectionable way? What if, instead of a single meeting, Sally is talking about a work colleague she interacts with often? Jones thinks that it would be inappropriate for Ted not to trust Sally on this matter, all else being equal, because Sally is a sort of expert on identifying sexism.

Sliwa (2012) provides two sorts of reasons why we might be justified in a moral belief on the basis of testimony. First, we might be concerned about our own ability to judge fairly because of bias. Second, there might be some people who are better equipped to make certain kinds of moral judgments.2 These two reasons account for the above case pretty well. Ted, knowing that he is likely subject to both implicit biases and privilege, should be concerned about his ability to recognize and judge the behavior of others in this area. He may also think that Sally, having experienced sexism in a more systematic way, will be more adept than him at picking out problematic behavior. This explanation also deals nicely with the cases where it does not seem like testimony can result in knowledge, like the meat-eating example above, because I am as capable of working out the answer as my friend.

3. Conclusion

This topic is a relatively new one in philosophy, and there is a lot of work still to do. I invite the reader to review some of the references below and consider the role testimony should play in her own moral thought.


1 Some philosophers distinguish between knowledge and understanding. For example, you might know a physics formula without really understanding why it has this constant rather than that one, or why it adds here instead of subtracts. Understanding suggests some deeper grasp of the topic than does knowledge. See Kvanvig and Hills for more on understanding as it contrasts with knowledge.

2See Driver for more on this point.


Driver, J. 2006. “Autonomy and the Asymmetry Problem for Moral Expertise”. Philosophical Studies 128 (3):619 – 644.

Hills, Alison. 2009. “Moral Testimony and Moral Epistemology”. Ethics 120 (1):94-127.

Hopkins, Robert. 2007. “What is Wrong with Moral Testimony?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (3):611-634.

Jones, Karen. 1999. “Second-Hand Moral Knowledge.” Journal of Philosophy 96 (2):55-78.

Kukla, Rebecca. 2006. “Objectivity and Perspective in Empirical Knowledge.” Episteme Vol 3, Issue 1-2 (2006) 80-95.

Kvanvig, Jonathan. 2003. The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding. Cambridge University Press.

McGrath, Sarah. 2009. “The Puzzle of Pure Moral Deference.” Philosophical Perspectives. Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Nickel, Philip. 2001. “Moral Testimony and Its Authority.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 4 (3):253-266.

Sliwa, Paulina. 2012. “In Defense of Moral Testimony.” Philosophical Studies 158 (2):175-195.

Thomas, L. 1998. “Moral Deference.” Theorizing Multiculturalism: A Guide to the Current Debate. Ed Cynthia Willet. Wiley-Blackwell.

Wolff, Robert Paul. 1970. In Defense of Anarchism. Accessed online:

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The Epistemology of Disagreement by Jonathan Matheson

About the Author

Annaleigh has a JD from Harvard Law School, a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from CU Boulder, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Washburn University. She is a practicing attorney in Boston; her focus is intellectual property litigation. Her academic interests include social epistemology, moral epistemology and methodology, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of law.

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