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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Is there such a thing as moral expertise?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Good question, right? I’ve been thinking more about it for a few weeks now as a result of an interesting talk by Gopal Sreenivasan (Duke University) entitled “Moral expertise and the proto-authority of affect,” which he gave at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

The New York Times certainly seems to think that one can be a moral expert, hence its ongoing “Ask the Ethicist” column. It is currently run by Chuck Klosterman, a journalist, author, and essayist — not a moral philosopher. Interestingly, when he took over the job recently, Klosterman told New York Magazine: “I don’t claim to be more ethical than anyone else, or even more ethical than the average person. But I love thinking about these types of problems, and I’ll try to be interesting.” We’ll return to this point of the difference between thinking about and practicing ethics (or anything else, really) below.

Here is the typical problem Klosterman deals with at the NYT: “Looking for artwork for my home, I recently bought a used road sign online — a bright blue one advertising a campground ahead. I liked it and ended up buying a second one. Only after I purchased those two signs did it occur to me that they may have been stolen. Now I feel guilty. Throwing them in the recycling bin doesn’t really make the situation right. Selling them to someone else is no better. Reporting the sellers seems hypocritical — plus, I have no evidence. What is my obligation as an ethical citizen?”

As an exercise, before continuing reading this post, close the screen and think about the reader’s question. What advice would you give, and why?

Klosterman’s response was not to worry too much about it, for three reasons. To begin with, there is the fact that the reader is not actually positive that the sign was stolen. It probably was, but that isn’t the only way people acquire road signs. Second, human culpability — according to Klosterman — is limited in scope. Even assuming that the sign was in fact stolen, this might have happened dozen of transactions ago, and, as he puts it, “at some point, it just becomes an object that exists in the world.” Lastly, there is the issue of intent: the reader wasn’t consciously going after stolen property, in which case she could have been held responsible for fostering a black market for road signs. Rather, she engaged in the transaction without suspicions about the origin of the sign. All things considered, then, according to Klosterman, if there is an ethical issue here it is rather negligible.

I agree, and think that The Ethicist (this time) got his reasoning exactly right. This example is interesting to me because it makes a crucial point that some of my readers seem to either miss or be peculiarly uninterested in. When I write about ethics here at Rationally Speaking, people often gravitate toward meta-ethical issues: am I a moral realist? What grounds moral judgments in general? And since there is no free will (ah!), how can anyone possibly believe in ethical judgment? Oh, and hasn’t Sam Harris demonstrated that ethical questions are best answered by science?

But I’ve often argued that the most useful way to understand ethics is to think about it as a tool for reasoning about moral dilemmas, just as we have seen with the example above, or as is systematically illustrated by Michael Sandel’s books. Yes, of course ethical reasoning is done within a particular framework, be it deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics or something else. And yes, there are also interesting “meta” questions (just as there are for other areas of inquiry, including science itself). But for most human beings, most of the time, ethics is an issue of reflecting about real situations and making the best decision that is possible to make given the circumstances.

You’d be surprised how much some people seem to lack any ethical knowledge whatsoever, or perhaps simply callously suppress it when it is convenient for them. For instance, just last night I was having dinner with a group of acquaintances, and this guy starts talking about how he dealt with a claim related to a set of life insurance policies (the fellow is a lawyer). Apparently, someone had bought five policies and then had suspiciously died shortly thereafter. The insurance companies where so distrustful of the circumstances that they actually demanded that the body be dug up to verify that the guy was in fact dead. My acquaintance (who was representing the family of the allegedly deceased) got worried once it was clear that not only was there no body, but not even an interred casket! Rather than admitting defeat and beat an embarrassed retreat, the fellow in question actually paid locals to spread a rumor that the body had been stolen by the insurance company, which eventually led said company to settle out of court for part of the premium. While this asshole was jovially recounting the story at dinner it apparently never even crossed his mind that he was bragging about insurance fraud, a crime, and an obviously unethical thing to do.

Back to Sreenivasan’s talk. He argued that it is rational, when faced with a moral dilemma about which one is uncertain, to ask a virtuous person, treating her as a moral (proto)expert, which is of course precisely the sort of thing the NYT reader quoted above was doing. Klosterman is not an expert in the usual sense of the term, since — presumably — (theoretical) moral expertise belongs with people who think professionally about these things: moral philosophers such as Sandel. But a proto-expert is someone who we simply think has better insights into a given matter than we do, not necessarily a professional. I don’t know whether Klosterman actually qualifies, but judging from the reasoning with which he motivates his answers, and by the fact that the NYT gave him the job to begin with, we may be provisionally justified in thinking that he is.

Interestingly, though, Sreenivasan had a slightly different kind of expertise in mind: practical, rather than theoretical. He comes at this from the point of view of virtue ethics, and for Aristotle the model to follow in matters of morality was whoever had shown herself to be a virtuous person (we would call them “role models,” if the term hadn’t been almost entirely discredited by applying it to basketball stars and other reference individuals who have significantly contributed to lowering our standards of moral excellence and to confuse them with mere celebrity — but that’s another topic altogether).

The question, of course, is: how do we know whether a person is virtuous or not? Certainly not by the way he talks, since there appears to be little correlation between theoretical moral expertise and actual conduct. What matters in this case is how a person behaves, more or less consistently over her life. A single moral act — as praiseworthy as it may be — doesn’t make someone a proto-expert in morality in the sense advocated by Sreenivasan. And of course you want to definitely stay away from the sort of fellow I encountered at dinner last night. This is the perennially frustrating aspect of virtue ethics, as far as its critics are concerned: it is inescapably vague in its recommendations. However, I find this to be a reflection of the messy reality of ethics and the human condition, and therefore not a limitation, but rather an advantage of virtue ethics over rival, more rigid, frameworks, like utilitarianism or deontology.

During the q&a part of the presentation I brought up the issue of recent empirical evidence that seems to show that moral philosophers are no more ethical than average, asking Sreenivasan what are we to make of this (assuming that the studies in question are not problematic from the point of view of design or interpretation). His answer was that there is a difference between the (practical) expertise of the virtuous person and the (analytical) expertise of the moral philosopher, with no particular reason to expect the two to be tightly related. If you will, this would be like expecting that an art historian, say, be himself a more than mediocre painter; or perhaps that an engineer who designs Formula Uno cars be a better-than-average driver of said cars. Even the ancient Greeks made a distinction between theory and practice, with the first aimed at understanding and the latter at, well, practicing!


As Aristotle put it in the Nicomachean Ethics: “Virtue, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral; intellectual owes its birth and growth to teaching, while moral virtue comes to us through habit.”

35 comments:

  1. Once the truth is found it must be practiced, and that makes all the goodness in deed.
    Truth is. =

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  2. The good thing about Chuck Klosterman is that he isn't a philosopher. As far as I can see, he doesn't claim to be doing philosophy. I'd say he's just engaging in ordinary moral discourse. You don't need any special philosophical expertise to do that. Moral discourse is an ordinary human activity, and too much philosophizing can be counter-productive to it.

    Of course, the more carefully you think during your moral discourse, the more you will tend towards doing philosophy. There's no sharp line between what is and isn't philosophy. It's a very fuzzy distinction. If you think very carefully you may question your basic moral judgements. That's good for philosophical truth-seeking, but not necessarily good for moral discourse. I can say that because I think the main benefit from moral discourse lies in its effect on behaviour, not in its contribution to truth. Chuck Klosterman's columns are short and sweet; they don't call for deep thinking. And they're probably the better for that.

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    A good article, and plenty of food for thought.

    I find myself agreeing with most of it.

    I probably do see virtue ethics as too vague to be very useful - but then perhaps there is no particularly useful alternative framework, because it probably is true that ethics is intrinsically messy. As such, perhaps the only thing moral philosophy can ultimately give us is the realisation that there are no objectively right answers.

    But if we do for a moment assume that there are good answers and bad answers to moral questions, must we not require that any moral role model must necessarily appreciate the difference? Can a person be virtuous without the capacity for reliable moral reasoning? I don't see how.

    So it seems that our virtuous role models must necessarily also be experts of moral philosophy. What then, if anything, is it that moral philosophers give us that these role models cannot?

    One answer might be that moral philosophers have the tools and the background to explain the reasoning behind a moral issue, whereas virtuous role models can only reliably give the answers, perhaps arriving at a result by instinct or intuition.

    Another answer might be that virtuous role models are only qualified to provide good answers for relatively day-to-day issues. Perhaps more paradoxical or unusual questions are better answered by a moral philosopher.

    I think a greater problem with the idea of a virtuous role model is that it is hopelessly unreliable because different people will choose different role models. For some, Pat Robertson is the epitome of virtue and morality. For others, Christopher Hitchens.

    The problem here is that there's no argument to back up our choice of role model without falling back on standard moral reasoning. In other words, we need moral philosophy to help us choose our role models in the first place, or else we're just falling back on the same unexamined intuitions and values as if we had no role models at all.

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  4. The guilt of buying something that might be stolen (a road sign) brings up something of interest to me: microethics vs. macroethics.

    If you buy things that are clearly not stolen but may be mass produced on labor where people are paid a sub-livable wage (stolen wages), is that ethical? If you go around helping everyone as best you can in your personal neighborhood, and even give to charities, but elect people who pass laws that cut assistance to the poor, is that ethical?

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  5. @ Massimo

    > The question, of course, is: how do we know whether a person is virtuous or not? <

    As I see it, there is a more basic question here. What constitutes morally good or morally bad behavior? IOW, how do you determine what is a virtue or a vice? What's your standard? What's your rationale?

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    1. By removing the blindfold from the Goddess Justice and allowing here to see, the light would shine on her inequitable scale and the truth would set her free. =

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  6. An interesting question. One that I think gets to the question of what responsibility philosophy has for practical purposes. It seems to me that it might be one thing to say that a specialist in meta-ethics wouldn't necessarily be able to help with day to day ethical dilemmas, similar to how a neuroscientist can't do brain surgery, but then who does fill that role?

    It seems like it is effectively filled today by religious figures, mental health professionals, and newspaper columnists. What product does moral philosophy provide to those folks? If none, then where does its value kick in?

    (Note: I'm not anti-moral philosophy, having been converted to virtue ethics due to my perception of its real world usefulness. But this question does disturb me.)

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  7. He argued that it is rational, when faced with a moral dilemma about which one is uncertain, to ask a virtuous person, treating her as a moral (proto)expert

    It is very difficult to get out of a certain basic circularity here: If you are too bad at ethical reasoning to figure the dilemma out yourself, how can you be good enough to spot a virtuous person?

    My second comment is obviously beyond the scope of this post, but I have started to wonder whether your preferred option of virtue ethics is really an alternative to the others. To be able to make the attempt to be a virtuous person one would, after all, first have to figure out what kind of behaviors are virtuous. And that means we have to fall back to deontology or consequentialism.

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    1. The reason I think pragmatic ethics is to be preferred to virtue ethics is that pragmatic ethics puts more weight on measuring the ethical improvement of the society an individual is in rather than the individual.

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  8. Would there really be a need for "virtuous" or "moral" role models in terms of being better at practicing or engaging in moral behavior now a days? I would imagine psychologists would be much better at getting people to change their actions and create habits, whereas moral experts (philosophers) would be primarily needed for their ideas and moral theories, telling us what virtues to cultivate.

    This is off course not to take anything away from philosophers and I think traditionally philosophers played both roles. However, in modern times, we have clinical programs such as modern forms of cognitive behavior treatments (acceptance and commitment therapy, etc) that take on an Aristotelean tilt to building a person's values (roughly similar to virtues) and aiming for creating a eudemonic life. Similar approaches are tried in school with positive psychology teaching curriculums.

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  9. Seriously Massimo, please report that attorney to the appropriate disciplinary committee. See here: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/ip/attorneygrievance/complaints.shtml

    At the least, he violated the Disciplinary Rules against dishonest behavior, DR 1-102 A(3) and A(4), and probably several of the Canons. As well, the Committee should have him disclose the names of his agents and notify the insurance companies. They may have a claim against him for "slander per se" if the statue of limitations hasn't expired - so please, report him asap.

    It's people like him who make the world such a train wreck, please don't just let it slip.

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  10. I wonder also whether moral advice should always aim at providing a single "answer" to an ethical conundrum.

    I feel that moral expertise is also valuable in extracting and explaining the implicit ethical tradeoffs in a particular dilemma, as well making people aware of the often-obscured implicit moral stances that they take when choosing one action over another.

    I think the ability to distill a complex ethical situation into one where the tradeoffs and stances are clear is an often overlooked aspect of expertise in moral reasoning.

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  11. Richard,

    > The good thing about Chuck Klosterman is that he isn't a philosopher. As far as I can see, he doesn't claim to be doing philosophy. <

    He doesn’t claim it, but he is. And while he is doing a decent job at it, I don’t see why think that an actual ethicist — like Sandel, or Singer — wouldn’t be doing an even better one. It constantly amazes me at how our society respects expertise in all sorts of areas, from dentistry and plumbing to football, but somehow refuses to concede that philosophical training counts just as much.

    > Of course, the more carefully you think during your moral discourse, the more you will tend towards doing philosophy. <

    Given this, how can you then argue that a philosopher wouldn’t be doing a better job, since she would presumably be more careful and nuanced than a layperson?

    DM,

    > Can a person be virtuous without the capacity for reliable moral reasoning? I don't see how. <

    In the same sense in which one can be a good musician without appreciation of musical theory (there are several such cases).

    > One answer might be that moral philosophers have the tools and the background to explain the reasoning behind a moral issue, whereas virtuous role models can only reliably give the answers, perhaps arriving at a result by instinct or intuition. <

    Exactly right.

    > I think a greater problem with the idea of a virtuous role model is that it is hopelessly unreliable because different people will choose different role models. <

    Not according to Aristotle. For him the people who pick either Pat Robertson or Christopher Hitchens would likely both making the wrong choice, albeit for different reasons. (What those two have in common is that they can hardly be thought of as striving for the virtuous middle in their thinking or behavior.)

    Alastair,

    > As I see it, there is a more basic question here. What constitutes morally good or morally bad behavior? <

    Ah, here we go again with the propensity for foundational questions? Fair enough, though, just read the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle expounds at length on that very question. (Though you’d be better off reading a modern commentary on Aristotle, or a contemporary virtue ethicist, like Philippa Foot.)

    SelfAware,

    > What product does moral philosophy provide to those folks? If none, then where does its value kick in? <

    Ideas seep through society in a variety of ways. Even religious figures (at least some of them) pick up philosophical ideas, and so do newspaper columnists and mental health professional. And of course there is a difference between what actually happens and what should happen: not many people take courses in probability theory, for instance, but they should.

    Alex,

    > If you are too bad at ethical reasoning to figure the dilemma out yourself, how can you be good enough to spot a virtuous person? <

    I don’t play good soccer, but I think I can recognize a top player when I see him play…

    > To be able to make the attempt to be a virtuous person one would, after all, first have to figure out what kind of behaviors are virtuous. And that means we have to fall back to deontology or consequentialism. <

    Not at all, because virtue ethics is situational and focused on the individual, while the other two are universal and focused on society.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      >In the same sense in which one can be a good musician without appreciation of musical theory (there are several such cases).<

      I understand and agree, but to draw out the analogy with what I was trying to say I would describe these musicians as having a very good instinctive appreciation of musical theory even if they lack the ability to articulate what they know. So that appreciation of musical theory is actually required.

      >For him the people who pick either Pat Robertson or Christopher Hitchens would likely both making the wrong choice, albeit for different reasons.<

      That's exactly the problem. Aristotle would not regard these as good virtuous role models because he judges them according to the values he has already decided are virtuous.

      So the role model idea doesn't really give you a whole lot, because you're ultimately relying on your own values to choose a role model. It seems to me that you might as well cut out the middle man and work off your values alone.

      >I don’t play good soccer, but I think I can recognize a top player when I see him play…<

      I think the analogy works to a point, but not really all that well.

      There's a world of difference in having the capacity to recognise brilliant soccer skills in others and having the capacity to demonstrate those skills oneself.

      But I would say there is little to no difference in the ability to check the arithmetic output of others and the abilty to do correct arithmetic oneself.

      My suspicion is that morality is more like arithmetic than like soccer. If you can recognise a moral decision, you can make a moral decision.

      Nevertheless, we do of course rely on role models for guidance on making moral decisions. My point is that this is very unreliable as there is no way to recognise a good role model without having good moral judgement in the first place. For most people, role models will be determined by family, religion and culture and not by virtue.

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    2. @ Massimo

      > Ah, here we go again with the propensity for foundational questions? <

      Theoretical issues are as important as practical ones.

      > just read the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle expounds at length on that very question <

      It seems to me that the practitioner of virtue ethics must presuppose a supreme good because Aristotle seems to believe that the most virtuous person is the most God-like.

      "Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness" (source: "Nicomachean Ethics" 10.8)

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    3. Massimo,

      > It constantly amazes me at how our society respects expertise in all sorts of areas, from dentistry and plumbing to football, but somehow refuses to concede that philosophical training counts just as much. <

      The value of training is obvious in those other areas, because we can observe the success of practitioners and see that they have a much higher success rate than the untrained. The public have very little basis for judging the success of philosophers, apart from the negative observation that philosophers massively disagree among themselves.

      Anyway, my point here was a different one. In the case of moral discourse, expertise at getting to the truth is not necessarily helpful, and may even be a disadvantage, because in my view the truth is that there is no moral truth. That means that the sorts of skills that might be useful to a giver of moral advice are not necessarily the sorts of skills that philosophers (as truth-seekers) try to acquire.

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    4. Truth-seekers and just being true are two different things, One leads to the other and the other is just One. =

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  12. Imad,

    > Would there really be a need for "virtuous" or "moral" role models in terms of being better at practicing or engaging in moral behavior now a days? <

    I don’t think it would be necessary, but I do think that we are swayed far more by role models, especially if we know them personally, than by people with whom we connect more impersonally, like psychologists (or moral philosophers!).

    Philip,

    > If you buy things that are clearly not stolen but may be mass produced on labor where people are paid a sub-livable wage (stolen wages), is that ethical? If you go around helping everyone as best you can in your personal neighborhood, and even give to charities, but elect people who pass laws that cut assistance to the poor, is that ethical? <

    I would say that ethics comes in degrees. The superficial answers to both pairs of scenarios are yes/no and yes/no respectively. But I also think that not all moral quandaries have the same ethical import.

    Philip,

    > The reason I think pragmatic ethics is to be preferred to virtue ethics is that pragmatic ethics puts more weight on measuring the ethical improvement of the society an individual is in rather than the individual. <

    Yes, and that’s precisely why I like virtue ethics better…

    Philonomist,

    > I wonder also whether moral advice should always aim at providing a single "answer" to an ethical conundrum. <

    No, and this is clear if you browse through the NYT columns, or read Sandel. Sometimes there is no really good answer, only the best of a bad lot. And sometimes there are roughly equally viable alternatives.

    > I feel that moral expertise is also valuable in extracting and explaining the implicit ethical tradeoffs in a particular dilemma, as well making people aware of the often-obscured implicit moral stances that they take when choosing one action over another. <

    Precisely.

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  13. Sorry but I fail to see how that changes anything. Is a scientist who fabricates data a virtuous person, or is a scientist who does not do so a virtuous person? Saying it is situational and individual does not change the fact that the criteria of whether doing the former or the latter shows somebody to be virtuous have to come from somewhere outside.

    Indeed, is not the whole point of ethics that they are not focused on the individual? Ethics and morals are fundamentally about social behavior; if there were only one life form in the universe it would not matter morally what it did because there would be nobody it could be doing it to.

    Due to these considerations, I increasingly lean towards a social-contractual view of morality.

    (As for the other issue, Dunning & Kruger's famous publication is precisely about that: Below some level people are too incompetent to recognize competence in others.)

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  14. Where do you look at virtuous behavior? The society you live in? Ethnocentrism and presentism can distort that. People you already agree with? lol Hard to look to people you strongly disagree with on moral matters. When intelligent well educated and morally sincere people do things we think should be obviously wrong, it's hard to see where we would look. Eric Schwitzgebel's recent piece on some of Kant's 'odd' views would seem to suggest even the greatest philosophers in history aren't really a good guidepost.

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    1. Surely Simon then they weren't the greatest! =

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    2. Simon, I follow Eric Schwitzgebel's blog, but don't recall any "recent piece on some of Kant's odd views." Can you point me in the right direction? I don't find Schwitzgebel's posts on ethics particularly insightful.

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  15. This would be a good topic for your podcast, Massimo.

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  16. Massimo,

    >It constantly amazes me at how our society respects expertise in all sorts of areas, from dentistry and plumbing to football, but somehow refuses to concede that philosophical training counts just as much.<

    This is a symptom of the fact that philosophy professionals don't own philosophical questions in the way that dentists own questions of dentistry and plumbers own questions of plumbing. Philosophical questions are a condition of life and all people are philosophers in a way they are not all dentists and plumbers. A picture in which philosophy professionals are "the philosophers" in a land of philosophical know-nothings who await to accept the conclusions of "the philosophers" on authority is unphilosophical to say the least.

    A "lay philosopher" may be in the grips of a philosophical view that a professional believes is hopeless but it is more honorable that this person holds their rational conclusion than that they go along with the professional on the basis of authority. If the lay philosopher doesn't believe the professional until they are convinced rationally it's only because they are a good philosopher.

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  17. Paul M. Paolini wrote: "... it is more honorable that this person holds their rational conclusion than that they go along with the professional on the basis of authority."

    I want simply to comment on his use of the word 'honorable'. I like it. If only such concepts had wider currency.

    (Will resist the temptation to articulate my views on authority and professional status. Others (e.g. Richard Wein) have already raised the sorts of points I would have wanted to raise anyway.)

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  18. DM,

    > I was trying to say I would describe these musicians as having a very good instinctive appreciation of musical theory even if they lack the ability to articulate what they know. So that appreciation of musical theory is actually required. <

    That’s pretty circular logic. You first define “musical theory” in a way that includes “intuitive appreciation,” then argue that the musicians therefore intuitively understand musical theory. I really wouldn’t go there.

    > So the role model idea doesn't really give you a whole lot, because you're ultimately relying on your own values to choose a role model. <

    No, for virtue ethicists there is something universal about human behavior, so — while one can pick the wrong role model — role models are people who do practice virtues like courage, equanimity and all the rest. Neither Robertson nor Hitchens qualify, though for different reasons.

    > My point is that this is very unreliable as there is no way to recognise a good role model without having good moral judgement in the first place. <

    Again, I disagree, and to use your counter-analogy, I think that practical morality is a lot more like soccer than like math.

    Alistair,

    > It seems to me that the practitioner of virtue ethics must presuppose a supreme good because Aristotle seems to believe that the most virtuous person is the most God-like. <

    Yeah, that’s the part that modern virtue ethicists have abandoned. No need to talk about gods and such. The supreme good is a eudaimonic life, which is a life lived morally well.

    Alex,

    > Is a scientist who fabricates data a virtuous person, or is a scientist who does not do so a virtuous person? <

    You really can’t tell the difference? Don’t confuse situational ethics with moral relativism, they are not at all the same thing.

    > is not the whole point of ethics that they are not focused on the individual? <

    That’s the point of ethical systems like deontological and utilitarian ones, not of virtue ethics.

    > if there were only one life form in the universe it would not matter morally what it did because there would be nobody it could be doing it to. <

    Agreed, but “focused on the individual” doesn’t mean “regardless of society.” Aristotle was well aware of the social role of the individual, and the virtuous person is one that acts morally toward others.

    > Below some level people are too incompetent to recognize competence in others. <

    Agreed, which is why ethics needs to be taught (both theoretically and by example). And Aristotle recognized that, stating that a eudaimonic life is difficult or impossible unless one has a nurturing family and social environment.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      >That’s pretty circular logic. You first define “musical theory” in a way that includes “intuitive appreciation,” then argue that the musicians therefore intuitively understand musical theory. I really wouldn’t go there.<

      But you've totally lost track of the point I was making.

      I was saying that any moral exemplar must necessarily have an intuitive grasp of moral reasoning, at least in terms of arriving at correct results. This is analogous to the way that musicians must have an intuitive grasp of musical theory even if they can't necessarily explain what they know.

      I'm not saying that they could pass a written exam on musical theory, and I'm not redefining anything. I'm only making the point that that musical theory is implicit in their capabilities, and the analogous is true of moral exemplars.

      So we don't need moral philosophers if we want only the right answers - we need moral philosophers only if we want the explanations. In the same way, we don't need music theorists for good music.

      I think we actually agree on this point, and I'm only arguing with you because I think you're misunderstanding me and that's a bit vexing!

      >role models are people who do practice virtues like courage, equanimity and all the rest<

      Ok, so if we can identify these virtues independently of having role models, what do we need role models for?

      >I think that practical morality is a lot more like soccer than like math.<

      Why? How do you think we recognise moral role models if not through the exercise of our own moral judgement?

      By the way, I didn't say math, I said arithmetic, because I actually do think one can recognise great math without having quite the same talent (although some talent is required). One can for example understand an ingenious mathematical proof without having the imagination or insight to discover it in the first place.

      I've possibly just handed you your counter-argument, eh?

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    2. @ Massimo

      > Yeah, that’s the part that modern virtue ethicists have abandoned. No need to talk about gods and such. The supreme good is a eudaimonic life, which is a life lived morally well. <

      You need to posit the perfect ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness for the very same reason that you found a need to posit mathematical objects. Until then, your epistemology, aesthetics, and moral philosophy will be groundless.

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  19. Richard,

    > The public have very little basis for judging the success of philosophers, apart from the negative observation that philosophers massively disagree among themselves. <

    I think that simply reflects the public’s (mostly, the American public) sheer ignorance and underlying anti-intellectualism, rather than any difficulty in objectively recognizing the value of philosophy.

    > expertise at getting to the truth is not necessarily helpful, and may even be a disadvantage, because in my view the truth is that there is no moral truth. <

    As you know, I disagree, though I don’t equate moral truths with the sort of external, objective, moral truths, like “Jupiter is a gaseous planet.”

    > That means that the sorts of skills that might be useful to a giver of moral advice are not necessarily the sorts of skills that philosophers (as truth-seekers) try to acquire. <

    You may have an unnecessarily restricted view of moral philosophers.

    Simon,

    > Where do you look at virtuous behavior? The society you live in? Ethnocentrism and presentism can distort that. <

    Yes, to some extent. And, again, Aristotle was well aware of that. But unless you go for all-out moral relativism, you will have to agree that there are some moral universals concerning human beings. Which is why we can relate to tales written by people who lived in very different times and places from our own.

    > Eric Schwitzgebel's recent piece on some of Kant's 'odd' views would seem to suggest even the greatest philosophers in history aren't really a good guidepost. <

    I was find it irritating that people point to the flaws of past philosophers (rather than their insight) in order to dismiss them, but hardly do the same for, say, great scientists. How about Newton’s interest in alchemy and Biblical numerology?

    Paul,

    > This is a symptom of the fact that philosophy professionals don't own philosophical questions in the way that dentists own questions of dentistry and plumbers own questions of plumbing. <

    People can do their own plumbing or dentistry, they are just typically bad at it. But I know what you mean. Ironically, to me that’s what makes philosophy so relevant to the public, however.

    > A picture in which philosophy professionals are "the philosophers" in a land of philosophical know-nothings who await to accept the conclusions of "the philosophers" on authority is unphilosophical to say the least. <

    But nobody has proposed such a picture. I see gradations, rather than this sort of yes/no situation.

    > it is more honorable that this person holds their rational conclusion than that they go along with the professional on the basis of authority. <

    Actually, there we disagree. Just like I would say that it wouldn’t be “honorable” to go with your honest conviction in a 6,000-years old earth just because you don’t wish to concede the expertise of a professional geologist, which you may not understand.

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  20. Massimo,

    It seems the issue of philosophical expertise has two levels. On one level there's the question of whether people trained in philosophy are better for certain roles outside the academy, such as advising on ethical issues in the private sector or handling the ethics column in a major newspaper. I would agree that people trained in philosophy are better for such roles and should be acknowledged as a having the relevant expertise.

    On another level - the level of conclusions or "philosophical knowledge" - I think philosophy is in quite a different situation from geology and dentistry. Unlike those fields, professional philosophy cannot see itself as a source of public knowledge. It is an only a source of reasoned arguments - usually on both sides of would-be knowledge. While dental views about fluoride make headlines, there probably will never be a headline to the effect: "Philosophers Confirm Platonism About Numbers True: Other Views Simply Untenable."

    Beyond the infinitely dicey nature of philosophical understanding that precludes authoritative philosophical pronouncements a la geology, there is the matter that philosophical understanding just isn't the kind of thing that can be taken on authority. There are too many inconsistent arguable views for such to be epistemically responsible.

    Generally, I don't think philosophy can be understood along the lines of a science, which seems to be where matters of expertise and authority come from. It's a different kind of thing wherein it's more each person for her own epistemic self. As I see it professional philosophers are less people with "special training" than people who have made a vocation of a kind of thinking that is a condition of life.

    My conception of philosophy is such that to think philosophy has anything special to do with science and its trappings is to have a particular idiosyncratic orientation in philosophy. Philosophy can take an interest in science but that's just one thing among many that philosophy can take an interest in. I say this to suggest the breadth of philosophy and the risks of provinciality that attend notions of philosophical expertise and authority.

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  21. Okay, if you are still reading it: Just how do you know what to do to be a virtuous person? By copying other virtuous people? But how do you know whether they are virtuous? You never explain how you break the circularity.

    Of course I know that a scientist who manufactures data is not virtuous. But I know it because I know what such behavior can lead to (consequentialism) and/or because they have a responsibility in their role to do an honest job if the rest of society pays them to do it (contractualism).

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  22. Massimo,
    Who is dismissing the insights of past philosophers? Given you had Kathryn Schuluz on your podcast -nice show- even if you weren't aware of it before -which I bet you were- you will know we are quite biased thinkers. So a more informed stance would be to take some reflective humility that if these great thinkers can appear to get these things so wrong, we shouldn't be surprised or think that we couldn't also take ethical stances that future people or ethical philosophers will thinks so obviously 'wrong'. Do you think you are 100% immune from a severe cultural bias of this type?

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  23. "I’ve often argued that the most useful way to understand ethics is to think about it as a tool for reasoning about moral dilemmas...."
    If moral claims are ultimately true or false, I'm not sure why one needs an extra tool for reasoning about this category of claims above and beyond the truth-tracking tools we already have (deduction, induction, abduction).

    "...for most human beings, most of the time, ethics is an issue of reflecting about real situations and making the best decision that is possible to make given the circumstances."
    Then it sounds like ethics simply collapses to decision theory, and is not needed as a stand-alone reasoning toolkit. What extra mileage does ethical reasoning get us? Is it simply a subset of decision theory, or fundamentally different? If the latter, how would one reconcile different conclusions reached between a person's "best" decision for herself versus a given ethical framework's conclusions if they differ?

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  24. Then it sounds like ethics simply collapses to decision theory, and is not needed as a stand-alone reasoning toolkit. What extra mileage does ethical reasoning get us? Is it simply a subset of decision theory, or fundamentally different? If the latter, how would one reconcile different conclusions reached between a person's "best" decision for herself versus a given ethical framework's conclusions if they differ?

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  25. (apologies for double submission - cut/paste operation into the blog's field didn't work. This is the full post I intended to submit)

    "But I’ve often argued that the most useful way to understand ethics is to think about it as a tool for reasoning about moral dilemmas..."
    If ethical claims are truth-apt, then why is a tool for reasoning above and beyond the truth-tracking methods we already have (deduction, induction, and abduction) needed?

    "But for most human beings, most of the time, ethics is an issue of reflecting about real situations and making the best decision that is possible to make given the circumstances."
    Then it sounds like ethics simply collapses to decision theory, and is not needed as a stand-alone reasoning toolkit. What extra mileage does ethical reasoning get us? Is it simply a subset of decision theory, or fundamentally different? If the latter, how would one reconcile different conclusions reached between a person's "best" decision for herself versus a given ethical framework's conclusions if they differ?

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