Monday, August 04, 2008

On moral experts

Jen Wright writes

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.

Good stuff and apparently from a bit of an expert.
caplan notes

Recently Tyler Cowen publicized one of his periodic challenges to me:

I often joke with Bryan that the time has come for him to accept the consensus of what the experts in moral philosophy (or atonal music) tell us (him) to do.
One of the perks of attending the Social Philosophy and Policy conference was that I was able to ask philosophers the critical question: "You philosophers are definitely experts at something. But what is that something?"

Profs and grad students alike largely seemed to accept the following list of topics where members of their occupation actually have expertise:

  • Accurately describing the views of other philosophers, living and dead.
  • Checking arguments for logical validity/internal consistency.
No one claimed that the philosophy profession was good at figuring out true answers to philosophical questions. One even claimed the the primary product of philosophy is "broken arguments." Furthermore, no philosopher made an argument analogous to one economists often make: "Outsiders underestimate the degree of consensus because our debates focus on marginal controversies."


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