Anthing to Declare?

Anything to Declare?

My baby came to me this morning
She said “I'm kinda confused
If me and B. B. King were both drowning –
Which one would you choose?”

–Steve Goodman

In a prior blogging incarnation on a blog called Left2Right I wrote about whether moral philosophers, i.e. those who study morality not those philosophers who are moral, were in some way more qualified, competent, likely to be more correct than other people to give answers or opinions about ethical issues. This question was stimulated by a quote from Steven Levitt, the freakonomics guy: “As an economist, I am better than the typical person at figuring out whether abortion reduces crime but I am not better than anyone else at figuring out whether abortion is murder or whether a woman has an intrinsic right to control over her body.”

One's first reaction might have been to suppose that the reason why an economist would not be be better than other people at figuring out ethical issues is that their professional training was not the right kind. But moral philosophers, after all, have devoted their lives to reading, thinking, and writing about ethical issues. Surely , if anyone has moral expertise, they would.

When the philosopher I most admire, John Stuart Mill, claimed that people ” must place the degree of reliance warranted by reason, in the authority of those who have made moral and social philosophy their peculiar study.” I don't think he had in mind by ” the degree of reliance warranted by reason” –none!

In that blog I argued that there is no reason to suppose that moral philosophers have more moral expertise than others, and that there is some reason to suppose they might have less. For example, the emphasis on argument, logic, precision (all good things in their place) might lead to downplaying factors such as sympathetic feelings, emotional stances, intuitive insights, and so forth.

A certain amount of controversy was occasioned by this but looking back I see now that both those who agreed with me and those who disagreed were making a common, but implicit, assumption. Namely that there is something that can be called moral expertise and that the issue is whether some of us , the philosophers, have more of it than others, the economists or ordinary folk. But is there, could there be, a kind of expertise or authority about moral matters?

What is it to have expertise? It is to know lots of things about some area of inquiry. I go to my doctor when I have symptoms because he has studied medicine, has practiced medicine, reads the medical journals, taught students how to diagnose illnesses, and so forth. He knows lots of things that I do not about the anatomy and physiology of the body. He has experience with the effects of various treatments and their side-effects. He has both theoretical knowledge (knowledge about how the world is) and practical knowledge ( what to do in various circumstances). Not only does he know more but he sees more than I do. What looks to me like a freckle looks to him like a melanoma.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, he can tell me the source of his claims. There is this test, or that article in the NEJM, or he has completed a controlled trial on this treatment. But sometimes he cannot. All he can say is that he has a hunch, or that on the basis of his past experience this seems the reasonable thing to try. He can even say that nobody has any idea of why this works, but it seems to. There is the joke about the famous physicist who threw some salt over his shoulder to avoid bad luck. When asked if he believed in that junk, he replied “Of course not. But it seems to work whether I believe it or not.”

On the basis of all of this I defer to his authority–which is not to say that I will not sometimes make independent judgments about whether he is correct.

What then of the moral expert? Is she someone like the doctor who has studied moral philosophy, read the ethics journals, taught students which arguments are valid, knows the difference between act and rule utilitarians? This seems absurd. What we are looking for is someone with practical, not theoretical, knowledge. We need someone who is (much) better at knowing what to do in various tricky situations. Whether to speak up or remain silent, whether to quit or stay on the job, whether to blame or to sympathize, whether to run off to the South Seas and paint or to remain married in Paris. We need someone that the ancients called a person of practical wisdom.

And surely (watch out ahead) there are some people who have this kind of expertise. Christians ask “What would Jesus do” because they believe it is more likely that he would do the right thing than someone picked at random from the Boston phone directory. Jews consult the rebbe because he knows what the Talmud says. If you are not religious don't you know people who are more sensitive than you, have more experience with the kind of situation you find yourself in, are more virtuous than you are? Don't you trust the good judgment of some people more than you do of others?

Well, perhaps, say some–but there is a difference between moral expertise and other kinds. According to Robert Paul Wolff “[a moral agent] may learn from others bout his moral obligations, but only in the sense that a mathematician learns from other mathematicians–namely by hearing from them arguments whose validity he recognizes even though he did not think of them himself. He does not learn in the sense that one learns from an explorer, by accepting as true things which one cannot see for himself.”

There are only two things wrong with this claim. It is not true about mathematicians and it is not true about moral agents. My guess is that there are very few mathematicians in the world who recognize the validity of Wiles proof of Fermat Last Theorem since it is a necessary condition of such recognition that one have gone through the proof . Keep in mind that when Wiles first released the 200 page proof it was checked by seven pairs of mathematicians who worked on different chapters and discovered a fundamental flaw in the proof which took Wiles and a student another 15 months to correct. Very few mathematicians have the necessary understanding of the techniques of algebraic geometry to understand the proof even if they read it.

As to the moral agent the rejection of authority relies on a conception of the moral agent being autonomous in the following strong sense. In Thomas Scanlons's words, although in a different context and for a different purpose, an autonomous moral agent ” cannot accept without independent consideration the judgment of others as to what he should do. If he relies on the judgment of others he must be prepared to advance independent reasons for thinking their judgment likely to be correct.”

But the idea of there being independent reasons for thinking an authority correct is ambiguous. One could have independent reasons for believing his judgment correct, that is, for believing the contents of his judgment are correct.
Or there could be independent reasons for thinking his judgment to be correct, that is , for thinking him likely to be right.
It is the latter which we rely on when we consult experts. If I am uncertain what the pain in my leg is, or why the thermostat is not working, or why my souffle keeps falling, or whether the Eskimos do have 50 words for “snow”, I consult those I have reason to believe are likely to be right about this. But, generally, once I get my answer , say, to the “snow” question I do not fly to Canada and do linguistic research to check it. Is ethics different?

To think about this one would have to think about matters such as the following. If I know that something is the right thing to do ( because an expert told me it was) then I do not know why it is the right thing, what the reasons that make it right are. Does that matter? Is it different from knowing that this drug will cure my symptoms ( because the doctor told me it would) but having no idea of why it will, what the causal mechanism of the cure is?

In the case of most experts we are able to compare their advice with how things actually are. If mapquest tells me there is a shorter route to x than the one I usually take, I can drive it and see that it is. But when my ethical advisor tells me that in this case it is permissible to lie, and I do lie, how do I determine that it was indeed permissible? Is there an independent way of checking that the advice was good advice?

There is no fault in going through life relying on my doctor, or my accountant, or my architect to tell me what to do about various practical issues. But there seems to be something less than ideal in going through life relying on the advice of others as to what to do when I have moral dilemmas. Part of what it is to be an agent at all seems to involve some reflection about what is the right thing to do, or what is a good life. A good life has to be led from within. One must make choices about the kind of person one wishes to be.

Finally, here is an argument that moral authority differs from other kinds. “[a moral authority] can make no moral claims upon anyone who does not adopt it as his authority.” There is something right about this. We can be held accountable for the authorities we choose. Sartre says, “If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice.” It seems to me, however, that recognizing this is compatible with the view that some of us are more sensitive and have more experience than others in thinking about difficult moral issues, with recognition of a (limited) moral authority, and with the relevance (if not the conclusiveness) or a moral community and tradition for guiding our moral life.