Epistemic Institutional Design: The Abstract

My focus in this project is to look at various institutions that try to track the truth about moral value, of which the Roman Catholic Church is only one. The Catholic Church is certainly wrong about consensual adult homosexuality, but what’s interesting is that this error is the result of a method of moral inquiry that otherwise will often yields good results. So the question is: could the Catholic Church improve its normative evaluations without destroying its institutional identity? Like many people, I suspect that much of what enabled the Church to preserve its basic values for so long may also prevent it from adapting. In contrast, democratic states have enacted epistemic procedures that are highly responsive to new information, but seem to allow large, systemically risky errors to emerge quite often.

A couple of caveats to the project: I assume that all institutions have an epistemic component: they enact procedures aimed at “getting the right answer” to some or another question. Even though some institutions seek answers specifically to normative questions, any epistemic institution will do: epistemic procedures themselves have a normative component, insofar as there are better and worse ways of inquiring. I assume that there is a sufficient analogy between matters of fact and matters of value such that the methods of professional epistemologists can supply insights for ordinary moral knowers. That means that I’m assuming that there are distinct matters of value into which we can inquire, and that these matters are not exhausted by some set of physical facts.

My questions: what is it about the design of an epistemic institution that leads to error, and can these features be rooted out or mitigated? Put another way: is some kind of errancy or blindspot inevitable? Must the production of knowledge always coincide with the production of ignorance in more than just the trite sense that our attention cannot be both broad and focused?

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