Monday, August 04, 2008

Moral Experts

What a great paper title: 'Who's to Say What's Right or Wrong? People Who Have Ph.D.s in Philosophy, That's Who' [pdf] (ht: Micha). The first half is a clear and rigorous analysis of all the different things that could be meant by the inane question in the title -- required reading for any intro ethics class. The second half of Sharvy's paper defends a controversial answer to the question 'who is best placed to answer questions about right and wrong?', or 'who are the moral experts?'
If you have a medical problem, see a physician for advice. If you don’t like his advice, get a second opinion—from another expert...

If you have a question about what is right or wrong, consult a professional philosopher... If you don’t like the advice your philosopher gives you, get a second opinion—from another philosopher. Philosophers, incidentally, will treat you much better than medical “doctors” do. They will not give you “orders”; they will not make recommendations without giving you the reasons; they will assume that you are intelligent enough to understand the reasons.

We thus have a place for philosophers as advisers of individual clients. But I would stress their role as theorists even more, in which they would advise legislators on what the public policy should be on such things as abortion law, the use of extraordinary medical measures to prolong the lives of deformed babies or the terminally ill, etc. It is outrageous that national commissions on “ethics” and “morality” often consist mostly of unqualified laymen: physicians, priests, lawyers, etc., rather than professional philosophers (see Singer 1976).

What do you think?


  1. I have no doubt that moral experts exist, that some of them have degrees in philosophy, or that current discussion ignores them. However, its far from obvious that moral experts should be expected to congregate in philosophy, rather than say in law or even medicine or priesthood, and it is fairly clear that the process of obtaining a PhD does not ordinarily train philosophers to be competent moral experts. In general you should expect moral experts to congregate in politics or business, e.g. centers of power from which they can reasonably aspire to do relatively much good, and NOT in academic philosophy. Since they don't seem, in practice to do either of these things we should seriously consider possibilities like science and engineering/invention which might reasonably be expected to do more good in the long term.

    In conclusion, I'm inclined to go with my standard conclusion and advocate that we treat physicists as our acting moral experts, as they have more legitimacy than any other group of plausible experts in a relevant domain, in this case, the general domain of thinking well, as illustrated by their illustrious history of solving critical problems in other people's scientific specialties.

  2. Seriously Michael? I can't at all tell if you are being sarcastic here. Onto the main post: I'm sceptical about the ethical insights of philosophers. I guess it depends on what Sharvy means by this. If his point is that, as emphasized in your quote, philosophers will explain whatever advice they give, back it up with reasons that you can evaluate for yourself, I suppose that has something to be said for it. But if what you want is the right advice I don't believe a philosopher is more likely to know the answer than a priest. Some philosophers working in ethics have especially profound ethical insight, but most don't. My methodological advice to anyone looking for moral advice is to ask someone who exemplifies good moral judgment (perhaps evident through some past deeds,etc.) Each of us might know people from quite different walks of life who fit the bill.

  3. Wow, no, I think the argument in the second half of the paper goes seriously off the rails; one sign of which is that if we substituted 'the Sophists' for 'professional philosophers', the argument would have the ancient Athenians getting their moral advice from Callicles and Thrasymachus, those expert advisers of legislators, rather than from that unqualified layman, the stonecutter Socrates; because all the features of professional philosophy that the argument highlights are those we share with the Sophists as professional teachers rather than those we share with Socrates as philosophers. And that can't be right. Colin is right: when you want moral advice you hunt down the prudent and the wise, not academics; if the academics happen to be the prudent and the wise, that's great, but the two are only incidentally related.

    (A serious disanalogy with medicine: medicine has elaborate institutional safeguards to protect people from quackery -- laws, ethics boards, licensing processes, and so forth -- that ethics conspicuously lacks. For that matter, there are usually more institutional safeguards with regard to technical professionals like plumbers than there are for ethicists. The doctoral degree won't cut it as a substitute; the only thing it shows is that the holder can do an extended bit of research, and write an extended argument, in the field. Half of trusting medical advice is trusting the system, in which the practice of medicine occurs, to constrain the field and give some guarantee of reliable, high-quality results.)

    I think, too, that even if we granted that professional philosophers were moral experts rather than, say, experts on certain kinds of arguments, the argument still conflates a number of different types of expert. When you have a 'medical problem', you don't always go to a physician. Sometimes you go to a medical researcher, who is a different type of expert. Sometimes you go to a pharmacist. Sometimes you go to hospital adminstrators who have practice with sustaining medical activity on a massive scale. Sometimes you go to someone who has dealt with the medical problem themselves. And so forth. There are no general medical advisers; you go to get advice from experts for very specific reasons, and what those reasons are will sharply constrain which experts you choose. And similarly, one wouldn't expect there to be a single type of general-purpose moral expert.

  4. No human is qualified to tell another human what is right or wrong. Thats my opinion.

    Any laws that exist are not by any chance an indication of what right and whats not. Just because the law in one country prohibits or permits an action, does not mean it is right or wrong.

    So the assumption that laws need to be "right" is flawed in my opinion.

  5. Even in the most misleading medical discourses (pharmaceutical commercials) the language contains the phrase "doctors recommend..." If the snippet of that paper really points to a larger argument that doctors order and philosophers recommend, then it seems the argument is simply false considering the facts.

    Moreover, "physicians, priests, lawyers etc" aren't laymen. The metaphor doesn't even work, considering the use of "priests"! Maybe this paper is unusually biting sarcasm, a la Swift?

  6. physicists are notoriously bad at philosophy, so i wouldn't go to them for applied ethics advice, that's for sure!
    as for philosophers, it would depend who. many asshole philosophers spring to mind, and then also a fair few who would be excellent wise old sages, and i'd definitely prefer them over any priest!

  7. Max, I suspect more physicists are familiar with philosophy than philosophers familiar with physics.

  8. Clark - perhaps, but physicists sure aren't better than philosophers at philosophy.

    Brandon - the point about 'safeguards' is interesting, and it's probably true that there's huge variation in the moral expertise of moral philosophers. But even so, I expect their average level of expertise is higher than any other readily identifiable group. So, even if imperfect, they'd seem the best guides we've got. (Any alternative suggestions? How would you go about creating a guild of professional ethicists?)

    One caveat: I have in mind here pure normative questions, i.e. given full information about possible empirical consequences, moral philosophers are the ones best placed to judge which are is the right option to choose. But it may be that many real-life "moral problems" are really largely empirical problems (as per your invocation of 'prudence') -- people may be unsure how others are likely to react to their choices, for example. In this case, it may be the expertise of a psychologist or other social scientist that they really seek.

    Devil's Mind - taken literally, your first sentence can't be right. We are often well placed to tell when other people are going wrong. (We don't even need to appeal to extreme cases like Nazis here. Just think of schoolyard bullies, or even minor incidents of inconsiderateness on our own part that our friends and family notice, and perhaps quietly chide us for later.) Sometimes we ask others for advice, precisely because we think that they are in a better position than ourselves to judge what's morally appropriate. We're all fallible, of course, but that's true of all judgments (including simple factual judgments) -- that's nothing unique to ethics.

    I don't follow the rest of your comment. (Of course there can be bad or unjust laws. The point is we should prefer to have good and just laws, and philosophers are arguably the best placed to discern what laws are just.)

    Jared - Odd comment. "Layman", in this context, just means "not a professional philosopher", which certainly holds of priests. And I don't think that pharmaceutical commercials exhaust "the facts" about how doctors relate to their patients.

  9. It has often seemed to me that philosophers fail to develop true expertise in an area because they have no engineering need for a correct answer - philosophers do not die if they make a mistake about free will, the way an engineer might die or see friends die if they miscalculated the capacity of a bridge.

  10. Richard,

    It's possible that we are using 'prudence' in different senses; I'm using it in an Aristotelian sense, in which it is a cultivated habit of making good choices and giving good advice. The problem with professional moral philosophy is that there is nothing that we do that particularly encourages such a cultivation; to find prudence relative to particular kind of choice, in most cases have to find people who deal directly and practically with that choice, or some analogous type of choice, quite a bit. Familiarity with empirical issues does play a role in this, of course -- people who know nothing practical about how laws affect, say, the economy, or how they are enforced, or how people will regard them, are not in general going to be able to make genuinely just laws -- but actually making good choices requires more than just awareness of empirical consequences. It requires certain kinds of deliberative habits, habits of association, ability to rank and prioritize the most salient empirical consequences and normative principles, even a knack for rational guessing, i.e., extrapolation. This pretty much guarantees that, as I said in my first comment, there can be no one class of general moral experts.

    Certainly what most moral philosophers study can assist with bits and pieces of this; but only to a very limited extent. I think it is arguably most effective in policy-type questions where the sort of moral expertise required involves the ability to think through the arguments on all sides of a question. There are things, though, that could be done to improve ethics training for philosophers even in such cases: e.g., requiring internships (e.g., in government ethics, business ethics, etc.) and major service learning projects (helping the poor in Bangladesh, etc.). That is, the idea should be that no one has a right to be considered a moral expert unless they have an unusual amount of experience handling practical moral issues. Such steps wouldn't guarantee the development of prudence, but might make it less a matter of chance.

  11. Let's pull out some Ryle and Nussbaum to keep Brandon and Aristotle company.

    People are confusing "making correct decisions in moral judgements" with "being moral".

    Figuring out right from wrong isn’t usually hard. It certainly isn’t the hard part in living a moral life. Moral judgements are not, in general, tricky. Oh sure there are moral dilemmas where our intuitions can get stuck - but you’ll find the people with PhD’s in ethics just as divided about what to do in such cases (though they’ll have sophisticated arguments for their answers).

    Moral errors typically come not from errors in moral judgements but from errors in moral perception or moral discipline. That is, from not noticing things, not thinking of things, not considering consequences, or from keeping on doing it even though you know it’s wrong or giving in to temptation. Philosophers are just as susceptible to temptation, and just as unlikely to notice things they don't care about, as anybody else.

    So the idea that philosophers should be making moral judgements for us comes from a mistaken over-emphasis on the role of “moral judgement”. This is part of an overall mistake - call it Descarte’s error - in over-emphasising the role “pure cognition”, the judgements of a disembodied mind. So don't tell me about "purely normative" judgements. Even if all empirical data is on hand, which bits do you read and focus on and think about and remember? Your moral vision will see some details and not notice others.

    Philosophers have no claim to be making the moral judgements.

    BUT: Ethicists (philosphers who study ethics) are experts in the study of ethical decision-making. If you want a committee to study (eg) the ethics of genetic engineering then you'd want people from a variety of backgrounds (scientists, farmers, conservationists, etc) because that way you get broader moral vision - consequences are more likely to be noticed. You also want people of integrity without too much conflict of interest so there's less temptation to bias the result. And you also want an expert on how moral judgements are made.

    There's a very strong case to *include* a philosopher in a group studying moral matters, possibly as a facilitator. That's not the same as saying that philosophers should be the ones making the decisions.

  12. Figuring out right from wrong isn’t usually hard. It certainly isn’t the hard part in living a moral life. Moral judgements are not, in general, tricky.

    I don't think this is right at all. The fact that moral advice is often sought and often given is a symptom of the fact that moral judgments are in fact quite tricky; another symptom is the fact that improvement in moral judgment over time is not a rare thing, which it would have to be if moral judgment were only rarely difficult. It's easy enough to find additional evidence for the point.

    The problem with your statement, I think, comes from thinking that moral judgment is somehow a third thing, separate from moral perception and moral discipline, when in fact it is simply a combination of both -- given the perception and the discipline there is in fact nothing else for an additional moral judgment to do. (Granted this, however, I'm pretty much in agreement with the rest of your comment.)

  13. Maybe not lawyers, but judges and law lords are surely the obvious experts on morality. Perhaps those who think not just tend to disagree with their decisions and so prefer the more inclusive inconclusiveness of analytical philosophising?

  14. Philosophy isn't really a definite science. Now, medicine isn't either, but I think people should look into themselves for answers instead of some self-proclaimed expert whose only qualification is the "Dr." that precedes their surname.

  15. Whoops. Missed the discussion. Richard, in answer to my comment at 3:06 (you really should number comments so we can refer to them easily) I was more going on a tangent. It's a pet peeve of mine how many philosophers look down of physicists and vice versa as being ignorant.

    My own view though is close to Brandon's. I'm not sure theoretical knowledge always translates to practical. To keep the physicist analogy there are many physicists I knew at Los Alamos who were theoretical geniuses but whom I'd not want working on the lab equipment tied to their research in the least.

  16. The fact that moral advice is often sought and often given is a symptom of the fact that moral judgments are in fact quite tricky;

    Brandon, I'm not convinced though that this phenomena is primarily because of ignorance though but rather weakness of will. In my experience people asking for moral advice typically already know what they ought do but are hoping for an easy alternative they may have missed or simply are looking for moral encouragement.

  17. Enigman - Judges may be the obvious experts on questions of legal morality, or how court cases should be decided. But there are many extra-legal moral questions, and it's not at all clear why they should have any expertise at answering those. (Are you assuming that judgment is a transferable skill? Maybe there's something to that.)

    Runtime - "some self-proclaimed expert whose only qualification is the "Dr." that precedes their surname."

    This is a very puzzling remark. A philosophy doctorate represents the culmination of 9+ years of tertiary study. And you can't just "proclaim" yourself to be competent at the end of it, you need to win the approval of your dissertation committee, i.e. senior professors in your field. So I'm not quite sure what you're getting at here.

  18. Richard - My assumption was indeed pretty much like yours in your following response to Runtime. In acquiring their expertese, Judges will have had to practice objectivity about all sorts of particular cases, plus the fact that those particular cases involve real people, in a legal system that is supposed to actualise a moral system (rather than theoretical systems and paradoxes).

    Dawkins asks who you would rather have on a jury deciding your case, a Priest or a Scientist, so I would similarly ask, a professional Manager or a Professor of Philosophy? The latter is relatively likely to be side-tracked by generalising your case into an idealised absurdity that would make an interesting paper (whose focus was the limitations of logical reasoning about ethical matters)...

  19. Interesting question Enigman. I think I'd want a scientist on my case (unless I was guilty of course)


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