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Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

An International Forum

Editor-in-Chief: A.W. Musschenga; F.R. Heeger

ISSN: 1386-2820 (print version)
ISSN: 1572-8447 (electronic version)

Journal no. 10677

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VIRTUAL ISSUE No. 1: Virtues, Skills, and Moral Expertise

ETMP has decided to launch a series of ‘virtual special issues’. Virtual special issues are online-only collections of articles, already published in the journal. Virtual special issues are especially useful for readers searching for material on specific topics.

This first virtual special issue brings together six articles, published between 2005 and 2013, that discuss the skill model of virtue. Virtues are commonly defined as positive moral qualities, desirable character traits, or as dispositions to make the right choices in particular situations. None of these definitions provide much insight, neither in the nature of virtues nor in the nature of moral education. Since all humans have at least basic skills such as driving a car, riding a bicycle, and cooking, and perhaps also more specialized skills such as playing piano, chess, and soccer, all know what it takes to have and to acquire skills, and can therefore get a better understanding of what it means to have and acquire virtues.
Those who have skills in particular domains are usually called experts. This explains the tendency to regard morally skilled persons – the fully virtuous – also as experts. Expertise has the interest of psychologists and specialists in Artificial Intelligence. Philosophers writing on expertise often find the work of Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus on the phenomenology of moral expertise (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1991, 2004) useful for fleshing out the skill model of virtue. References to their work appear in almost all articles in this collection.
The articles are ordered chronologically. In his first article Daniel Jacobson goes into the perceptual moral epistemology which is characteristic for virtue ethics. Influential proponents of virtue ethics often claim that virtuous persons possess moral knowledge which issues from a distinctive sensibility which allows them ‘to see what to do,’ through their properly trained emotional responses. Jacobson attempts to vindicate virtue ethics’ perceptual moral epistemology by drawing on the epistemology associated with the skill model. Contemporary virtue ethics, says Jacobson, accepts one the one hand the skill model. On the other hand it stresses that virtues require a strong conception of practical wisdom for dealing with conflicts between virtues. However, any conception of practical wisdom robust enough to resolve such conflicts cannot plausibly be considered a skill.
Two articles in this collection are from Matt Stichter. In the first one he argues, against Julia Annas (1995, 2003) that Aristotle does not reject the skill model of virtue, although his account of the structure of skill is different from that of Socrates. Stichter characterizes Socrates’ model as intellectualist, while the model of Aristotle is more empiricist. Referring to the work of Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus, Stichter contends that the empiricist model aligns better with recent research on expertise. After the publication of these two articles, Stichter has been continuing to work on the topic which resulted in five articles, included in the reference list below.
Virtue ethics states that those actions are morally right which should be chosen by experts in matters of virtue. But how to recognize a moral expert? What are their credentials? Traditional accounts of moral expertise contend that it is distinctive of moral experts that they give reliably correct moral advice, supported by adequate justification. According to Michael Cholbi this account is too lean because it allows for the possibility of moral experts who are not inclined to follow their own advice. Instead of two, three credentials identify the conditions for moral expertise. However, they are not very helpful for determining which individuals satisfy these conditions.
If the non-virtuous cannot be told to follow the advice of a fully virtuous person because they are unable to identify experts in virtue, what remains to be done for them is morally improve themselves. The kinds of action one needs to engage in when trying to improve oneself, such as self-monitoring, are not actions that any virtuous person would need to take. According to Robert Johnson (2003), any account of right action grounded in the virtues must make room for a genuine moral obligation to improve one’s character. Rosalind Hursthouse’s account of right action (Hursthouse 2000, 2006), says Johnson, fails to make room for self-improving actions. In his second article, Matt Stichter goes into this issue and argues that the skill model of virtue as developed by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus provides support for Johnson’s thesis that the actions of the non-virtuous will differ from those of the virtuous.
Not only the character virtues, but also the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom can be understood as skill. (Practical) wisdom is the subject of Jason Swartwood’s article. Wisdom is for him the expert skill to make decisions in complex situations. Referring to psychological studies on the Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) model, Swartwood describes expert skill as a set of abilities. Experts have, e.g., the intuitive ability to identify quickly, effortless, and without conscious deliberation what ought to be done. But they are also good at conscious deliberation, and at identifying when and how to rely on intuition and deliberation. Swartwood thinks that his account of the expert skill model provides a resolution to the debate between Annas and Stichter in his first article. The expert skill model shows that wisdom had both a substantive intuitive (Stichter) and a substantive deliberative and meta-cognitive component (Annas).
The last article, by Robert Reed, does not see expert skills as a model for understanding every day ethical expertise. Everyday ethical expertise, says Reed, requires an openness to an experience of self-doubt very different from that involved in becoming an expert in other skills. Unlike driving or playing chess – examples used by Dreyfus and Dreyfus – moral intuitions cannot be refined without placing, not just one’s understanding of the situation, but one’s very self in question. Virtue shows itself, says Reed, chiefly in the genuineness of our ‘ethical expertise’ as we become more self-knowledgeable. Reed refers not the psychological literature, but to the work of Emanuel Levinas.
The skill model is a useful, but not generally accepted, tool for understanding the concept of virtue. A rival conception is that of virtue as disposition. The objection to the skill model is that experts are not necessary motivated to follow their own advices while fully virtuous person are. Swartwood mentions this objection, but thinks it does not undermine the expert model. Cholbi’s solution is to make the motivational requirement a condition for moral expertise. Another weak point in the expert skill model is that it does not do justice to the ordinary meaning of a expert as someone with specialized skills and knowledge. I do not favor calling the everyday moral competence of normally maturated moral individuals ‘moral expertise’, as Dreyfus and Dreyfus do. Many psychologists studying expertise stress that expertise is domain-specific. Although talk of the moral domain is quite common, its scope seems too all-encompassing for qualifying as a domain of expertise as understood by psychologists.
As a response to my request to add new material and new ideas on the topic to this virtual special issue, Jason Swartwood sent me on February 12, 2106 the following reflections:
“I have been excited to see that the discussion of analogies between virtues and expert skills has been continuing and has pushed us to understand both virtues and skills better. My own interest in the analogy between practical wisdom and expert skills was inspired by the work of Daniel Jacobson, Matthew Stichter, and Julia Annas, so I feel particularly excited (and grateful) to be part of the discussion with them.
While I still think that the view of wisdom I defend, the expert skill model, is plausible, I believe objections to it (and to views like it) have allowed us to better understand the nature of wisdom and the power and limitations of pursuing analogies between virtues and skills.
For instance, I think Daniel Jacobson’s objection that wisdom is “not a plausible human skill” pushes us to take seriously the role that feedback from reflection and experience play in helping people develop wisdom. As I argue elsewhere (Swartwood 2013, Chapter 4), I think that what Jacobson’s objection shows is that, in addition to using coherentist reasoning about cases to get feedback on the content of our judgments about what to do, to develop wisdom a person needs to get feedback on the decision-making processes they use to make those judgments. That both of these types of feedback are required for developing expertise in skills (such as, for instance, in firefighting) is borne out by the empirical research: according to the RPD model, people develop expertise most efficiently when they get feedback on the effectiveness of their decision-making processes rather than simply on the content of their decisions (Phillips, Klein, and Sieck 2004, 308). I think that seeing wisdom as an expert skill is plausible once we recognize the importance of both types of feedback. And, as far as I can tell, as long as the objection is directed at the expert skill model and not at defending a more thoroughgoing moral skepticism, then we haven’t yet a reason to say wisdom is not a plausible human skill.
I think that other attempts to identify relevant differences between wisdom and expert skills are similarly useful in helping us make progress (Reed 2013; Kristjánsson 2015, 94–101). Sometimes, there seems to be less of a difference than we think (as is the case with critical doubt and self-reflection; see (Swartwood 2013, 69–74)), but in other cases we are forced to explore further the ways the domain of wise decisions is distinctive. Far from undermining the expert skill model, I think this shows the value in being clear about the goals of the analogy. If the goal is to establish that wisdom is partly composed of some specific characteristics (such as being composed of specific decision-making skills) that are also found in other expert skills, then the differences we find need not necessarily undermine this project. Still, they do push us to consider whether there are other aspects of wisdom that we can’t further specify and identify using the analogy and whether other analogies or arguments are necessary to get a more complete picture of the nature and development of wisdom. “
Albert W. Musschenga


Annas J (1995) Virtue as a skill. Int J Philos Stud 3(2):227–243
Annas J (2003) The structure of virtue. In: DePaul M, Zagzebski L (eds) Intellectual virtue. Clarendon,
Oxford, UK pp15–33
Dreyfus H, Dreyfus S (1991) Towards a phenomenology of ethical expertise. Hum Stud 14:229–250
Dreyfus H, Dreyfus S (2004) The ethical implications of the five-stage skill-acquisition model. Bull Sci
Technol Soc 24(3):251–264
Hursthouse R (2000) On Virtue Ethics. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Hursthouse R (2006) Practical wisdom: a mundane account. Proc Aristot Soc 106(1):285–309
Johnson R (2003) Virtue and Right. Ethics 113:810–834
Kristjánsson K (2015) Aristotelian Character Education. Routledge, London
Phillips JK, Klein G, & Sieck, WR (2004) Expertise in judgment and decision making: A case for training intuitive decision skills. In: Koehler DJ & Harvey N (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making. Published Online: 14 JAN 2008 DOI: 10.1002/9780470752937.ch15
Reed RC (2013) Euthyphro’s Elenchus experience: Ethical expertise and self-knowledge. Eth Theor Mor Prac 16:245–59.
Stichter M (2016) Virtues as skills in virtue epistemology, J Phil Res 38: 331-346
Stichter M (2015) Philosophical and psychological accounts of expertise and experts, Humana Mente: 105-128
Stichter M (2016) Practical skills and practical wisdom in virtue Australas J Philos (forthcoming)
Stichter M (2016) Virtue as Skill. In: Snow N (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming )
Stichter M (2016) The role of motivation and wisdom In: Annas J, Narvaez D, & Snow N. (eds.), Developing the Virtues: Integrating Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
Swartwood JC Cultivating Practical Wisdom Ph.D. Dissertation, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota. http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/154543/1/Swartwood_umn_0130E_13707.pdf.

Seeing by Feeling: Virtues, Skills, and Moral Perception 

Daniel Jacobson

Ethical Expertise: The Skill Model of Virtue 

Matt Stichter

Moral Expertise and the Credentials Problem 

Michael Cholbi

Virtues, Skills, and Right Action 

Matt Stichter

Wisdom as an Expert Skill 

Jason D. Swartwood

Euthyphro’s Elenchus Experience: Ethical Expertise and Self-Knowledge 

Robert C. Reed

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