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Research project

Higher-Order Evidence in Epistemology, Ethics, and Aesthetics

Project overview

What difference does higher-order evidence make to what it is rational to think, feel or do? This project assembles an international team to explore answers to this question and the issues they raise.

First-order evidence indicates or makes it likely that a claim is (not) true. Higher-order evidence is evidence about one’s evidence or ability to assess it. Suppose that a detective is investigating a murder. The evidence the clues provide—concerning motives, access to the gun, etc.—suggests that the butler did it. This is first-order evidence. The butler belongs to a minority ethnic group. This does not make it more or less likely that the butler did it but suggests that the detective’s assessment of the evidence is biased. It is higher-order evidence.

Some claim that higher-order evidence generates rational dilemmas. If the detective thinks that the butler did it despite the risk of bias, they are irrationally overconfident. If the detective does not think this, they are ignoring the clues. It is puzzling to think that there are cases in which there is no reasonable way to respond to a body of evidence. Others argue that higher-order evidence can make it rational to believe against one’s better judgement. Given the clues, it is rational for the detective to believe that the butler did it. Given the risk of bias, it is rational for them to believe that this is not rational. But this combination of beliefs seems the paradigm of irrationality—it involves a person at odds with themselves.

This is a brief indication of some surprising conclusions to which reflection on higher-order evidence leads. These are issues in epistemology—the theory of knowledge or, more broadly, rational belief. Strikingly similar issues arise in ethics and aesthetics. Suppose that a philanthropist is deciding whether to donate to charity A or charity B. Their research suggests that A is best. However, their advisor in a rare lapse of judgement says that it does not suggest this. Suppose that the features of an artwork a viewer experiences make it admirable. However, they are aware that such works are in vogue, which might sway their estimation of it. In each case, the structure is the same. A person has first-order evidence that supports a response and higher-order evidence that suggests otherwise, or suggests that their response to the first-order evidence is unreliable. Given this, analogous issues arise. Does the philanthropist face a dilemma? Should the viewer admire the work against their better judgement?

While there is much work on the role of higher-order evidence in ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology, there has been little work at their intersection despite the manifest parallels. As a result, lessons learned in one area are not applied elsewhere, proposals are tailored to a particular field without asking whether they extend to others, and opportunities to identify general patterns are lost. The aim of the network is to encourage research on the impact of higher-order evidence across domains. It will promote a broader perspective on higher-order evidence in another respect—by engaging philosophers in the Western tradition with presently neglected ideas from Chinese philosophy. This inclusive approach will enable researchers to assess the reach of proposals and ensure cross-pollination.

The project will foster cutting-edge research through a series of workshops. It will make available its results through a high-profile publication, support future work and teaching on the topic through a state-of-the-art survey and bibliographical guide, and foster international connections, especially but not only between the UK and China.

The concerns of the network are not only theoretical but of real-life significance. How should we conduct ourselves given what we know about our foibles and limitations? A further aim is to encourage engagement with the research by non-academics with a view to influencing practice.


Lead researcher

Professor Daniel Whiting

Professor of Philosophy

Research interests

  • Epistemology
  • Ethics
  • Aesthetics
Connect with Daniel

Research outputs

Daniel Whiting, 2022, The British Journal of Aesthetics
Type: article
Daniel Whiting, 2021, Australasian Journal of Philosophy
Type: article
Daniel Whiting, 2020, The Philosophical Quarterly, 0, 1-21
Type: article