Monday, March 07, 2005

Moral Experts

My last post raised unsubstantiated doubts about the aesthetic expertise of professional literary critics. They were not very seriously meant. While some of what goes in in literary studies seems irrelevant or inimical to the perception of beauty, there is also quite a bit of reading, which surely is not.

My sniping has more to do with anxiety about the parallel question for philosophical ethics. In an introduction to the subject published in 1954, when the logical positivists' injunction against the practical application of ethics had begun to fade, P. H. Nowell-Smith called for a return to its historical ambition:
A philosopher is not a parish priest or Universal Aunt or Citizens' Advice Bureau. [But while] different philosophers have held very different views as to the way in which moral philosophy can help you to answer practical questions[, ...] they all agreed that the goal of moral philosophy is practical knowledge, not that we should know what goodness is but that we should become good.
Moral confusion is sometimes the product of empirical mistakes, or ignorance, or lack of proper acquaintance with the facts, or lack of time to reflect on them, or self-contradiction – and academic philosophers may be well placed to improve on this. But does their professional education equip them to go beyond that, to what really matters: good moral judgement?

It is hard to see why it should. Moral judgement is in an exercise of character, and moral philosophers are not notably more virtuous than anyone else.

The philosopher's claim to moral expertise may be at issue in the recently popular debate between "particularists" and "generalists", about whether morality can be codified in a set of finite principles. If it can, one might expect the philosopher to be of use in finding them; if not, then not. But our issue is better framed not in metaphysical terms (about the structure of the moral realm) but in epistemic ones. Are the intellectual virtues fostered by doctoral study in philosophy – a sense of coherence, simplicity, logical order – the primary virtues of moral reflection? Is morality in this respect so much like science? The suggestion that it is can be found not only in the utilitarian tradition – for instance, in Shelly Kagan's The Limits of Morality – but in some Rawls-inspired Kantianism, and in the "virtue ethics" of Michael Slote. But I am sceptical.

The general question, how our moral-philosophical studies, or our methods, reflect on our moral character is one that is rarely asked. I am fond of Simon Blackburn's purportedly disparaging remark, that
[often] nothing is conveyed [by apologies for objectivity and fact in moral philosophy] except that their authors are very well-brought-up and serious people.
It ought to be more surprising than it is that opponents of objectivity and fact in moral philosophy, like Blackburn, are not at all chastened by this.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Engleson said...

I propose that the question be put to empirical study.

I say we create lists of moral philosophers by category:
Normativists
Metaethicis
Moral Psychologists
Applied Ethicists

(As for those who could be counted in more than category, I suggest asking them which field they consider themselves primarily to fall in.)

I suggest then, that with this list, we send out the list to all philosophers willing to participate (all responses will be anonymous). The persons on this list would be ranked 1 to 5 for moral rectitude. I.e. John Rawls would likely receive a 4 or 5, and R.M. Hare considerably lower. It would be interesting to see not just whether the study of moral philosophy seems to affect one's moral rectitude, but whether different subdisciplines correlate with (at least the perception of) moral rectictude.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Mark (if I may) -

A very funny idea, but it does have a design flaw. Apart from the fact that it won't help us to compare philosophers with those outside the discipline, your system of scorecards relies on the moral expertise of philosophers (in judging the character of their peers), thus begging the question at hand.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Jen Wright said...

In the empirical literature, they make a distinction between performative and epistemic expertise, which I think is applicable here.

To the extent that moral philosophers are experts at all, they are epistemic experts -- that is, they have expertise about the domain. But, there is no reason to suppose that this gives them performative expertise, which is what we are looking for when we talk about moral excellence (as expressed in virtuous actions).

The development of performative expertise is an entirely different animal than the development of epistemic expertise. Performative expertise, regardless of the domain, involves the development of trained perception (which, in the moral domain, would involve the ability to recognize the morally relevant features of a situation as morally relevant) and automatic responsiveness -- i.e. the linking of perception and action in such a way as to 1) make deliberation often unnecessary and 2) make appropriate/successful action highly likely.

This is actually a topic of great interest to me, which I've been writing on quite a bit lately. I think that moral excellence is not only quite different from the skills one develops as a moral philosopher, but also that we shouldn't expect moral philosophy (at least, as we do it) to result in moral excellence. Indeed, it seems to me that moral philosophers, insofar as they emphasize rational deliberation and conformity with moral principles as the ultimate moral achievement, do a poor job of understanding and instructing others how achieve moral excellence.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous steve andresen said...

I too am interested in whether moral philosophers can know what is good or how to be good. I have thought the question is raised because both philosophers and people, in general, have committed themselves to the seemingly innocuous claim that knowledge and values, or morality, should be understood as a matter of logical argument.

I no longer believe this claim is harmless. In fact, to put it with only a little hyperbole, it is the root of all evil.

So, for example, as it implies that both knowledge and values are impossible, it is the source of skepticism and nihilism. Furthermore, the empiricist literature basically agrees to this claim, and its implications, and to the objection that we do, in fact, have lives involving knowledge and values, says, "it is about logic, and you only seem to have lives."

I don't think the empiricist literature will be helpful here at all because it begs the issue that I am raising.

No, the doubts we have about moral expertise are generated by our uncritical acceptance of this epistemic and moral theory involving logic. Now, the critique I want to make is not based on a rejection of reason or argument. Rather, I find logical argument itself to be a mockery of reason and argument. I would replace any account of morality or knowledge that involved either logic or rhetoric, but not both, with its alternative, that we consider both logic and rhetoric together.

So, instead of responding to Kieran's concerns about moral expertise with an appeal to empiricism, rationalism, or pragmatism, I instead want to challenge what I take to be an underlying premise of all these positions, that we should understand these things in terms of logic.

12:11 PM  

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