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February 17, 2006

Moral Expertise?

Gerald Dworkin: February 17, 2006

A recent New York Times has a quote from Steven Levitt, the freakonomics professor.

 “As an economist, I am better than the typical person at figuring out whether abortion reduces crime but I am no better than anyone else at figuring out whether abortion is murder or whether a woman has an intrinsic right to control over her body.”

 My thoughts after reading this included the following.  First, it’s nice to see an academic being frank about what his expertise does or does not qualify him to opine about.  Being a political theorist does not make one’s views about the significance of the Hamas victorymore likely to be accurate than the speculations of a literary theorist . It may be true that the former has paid somewhat more attention to Middle East politics than the latter, and that may reflect something about the interests of those in the respective disciplines, but the content of their discipline does not make one more qualified than the other.

 The second thought was would the inverse statement be true for a moral philosopher?

 “As a philosopher I am better than the typical person at figuring out whether abortion is murder of whether a woman has an intrinsic right to control over her body, but I am not better than anyone else in figuring out whether abortion reduces crime.”

The latter part is certainly correct. And its corollaries are important to keep in mind for work in applied moral philosophy. Over the years I have made predictions in philosophical work about 1) the dangers of research into genetic differences between racial groups, 2) how likely it is that there will be a slippery slope from voluntary euthanasia to non-or-in voluntary euthanasia, 3) the consequences of allowing Universities to enforce campus speech codes.

 Some of these predictions were accurate, some not, some never allowed opportunities to test the prediction. But I might have stressed that these were my best guesses, that although I looked at various sources of data I did not evaluate them rigorously, that it all too easy to dismiss contrary evidence as motivated by (mistaken) normative views.

 In light of this there at least the following two strategies. First, only engage in conditional claims, e.g. if it turns out that the consequences of legalizing X are large and dangerous ( and there are no feasible ways of limiting this) then we should not legalize X . Or we can read as much of the relevant literature as possible, consult with those who are genuinely competent in assessing the evidence, and make our best guess (labeling it as such). I leave aside the possibility that there may be rights at issue which determine the issue independently of the likely consequences (at least below some high threshold).

But it is the first part that is more important and more difficult to think about. Are we, qua moral philosophers, better than the average person in coming to correct answers about first-order moral matters?  Well, we have been reading, thinking and writing about these issues for all of our professional lives. We are trained to evaluate and criticize arguments. Our views have been exposed to critical examination and refutation by other philosophers. Some of us serve on IRB’s and consult with physicians about what to do in difficult ethical cases. How could we not be better than the average person at figuring out these things?

 Appealing to authority, we could consider Mill’s view.

 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…[R]eason itself will teach most men that they must, in the last resort fall back upon the authority of still more cultivated minds.”

 Whether this is a particular piece of Victorian authoritarianism or not is the issue before us. First, let’s not make things too easy for ourselves.  If by the “average” person you mean a randomly picked individual walking down the street then I think it’s false that Levitt is not better at figuring out whether a woman has a right to control over her body. After all the average person does not know who the Secretary of State is, what the 2nd amendment is, doubts that evolution is true, believes in ufos ( Gallup Poll figures are about 50% for belief in ufos), etc.

 So, let us arbitrarily define the relevant average person, as a random person picked from the intersection of the two classes 1) has a college degree and 2) reads a daily newspaper.

About 25% of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree. About 60% of those read a newspaper at least once a week. Therefore,  roughly 15% of the population falls into the intersection of the two classes—about 45 million people.

Is a randomly picked moral philosopher better at figuring out a normative issue than the average person ,as defined above?  How would we test this?  If we knew the correct answers to the moral issues facing us we could do a survey.  But, unless the question is very narrowly framed, we might find as much disagreement with the “correct” answers among philosophers as among average people.  And do we simply count correct answers, or the quality of argument given to support the answers. It’s likely that philosophers score higher on that dimension but what would that show?  Perhaps that philosophers are better at framing discussion and making distinctions. But does that (tend) to show that they get things right more often?  Isn’t there a plausible reason to suppose the philosophers have a tendency to accord more weight to argument than to sympathetic feelings,  experience with the subject matter, intuitive insight, etc.?  If you wanted someone to aid you in making a difficult ethical decision about medical treatment for your child would you be better off consulting a moral philosopher, or a physician who has dealt with similar cases for 30 years. I know whom I would choose.



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» Comments for: "Moral Expertise?" from Left2Right Comments
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I agree with Gerald Dworkin (and Jason Stanley) that moral philosophers are not better than the average person in coming to correct answers about first-order moral matters. I have sometimes consulted moral philosophers about ethically complex decisions... [Read More]

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