Practical Knowledge, Equal Standing, and Proper Reliance on Others

Carla Bagnoli
University of Modena
The analogy with craft suggests that moral development is similar to non-moral apprenticeship in some crucial ways: it is both an individual and a social achievement, resulting from one’s participation in social practices guided by the exemplary character of the wise. Moral cognitions are the object of practical reason, but practical reason is importantly incomplete: to be endowed with rational and emotional capacities is not sufficient to grasp and articulate true moral cognitions. Such capacities ought to be adequately exercised and appropriately educated to generate genuine moral knowledge. Second, this account of moral knowledge highlights our dependence and reliance on others in developing and perfecting our natural endowments, including rational and emotional capacities and, ultimately, in achieving any form of practical knowledge, including moral knowledge. This model contains profound insights about the incompleteness of practical reason and the need to learn under the guidance of others. However, I shall dispute that the operative mode of guidance is imitative or emulative. In the first part of the essay, I shall raise some issues concerning the role of exemplars in accounting for the attainment of practical knowledge. Insofar the wise are accorded ultimate authority in determining the standard of correctness for moral cognition, the model seems arbitrary and, for additional reasons, does not seem to offer any protection against discrimination. If, on the other hand, the standard of practical knowledge is not the wise, then their role is only heuristic, and thus the model is importantly incomplete. This impasse leads us to reconsider the role of others in the processes of attaining practical knowledge as well as in construing the moral and epistemic ideal of autonomy. In the second part, I shall argue that to understand the deeply social nature of ethical and epistemic processes that underlie the acquisition of moral knowledge, we have to conceive of others as having equal normative standing. That is, the operative mode of normative guidance is inherently interactional and governed by the claim of equal standing. The discussion of equal standing supports a revisited model of autonomy which does not discount social dependency, nor does it aim to promote self-sufficiency, self-realization, or self-reliance. Rather, it provides the objective criterion for distinguishing between proper and improper reliance on others. In sum, autonomy as a workable ethical and epistemic ideal of human agency should be recast as proper reliance on others.
Keywords practical knowledge  equal standing  autonomy  dependency  Kant  Aristotle  moral expert
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