From the Archive: On Expertise

As I’m on holiday break, I’m relying on the archives of my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, to keep things moving along with this new blog. I will resume the development of new posts soon.

Today’s entry, from May 27, 2011, takes up a question that is still of concern to me, especially as i think about the meaning and the uses of this new blog: Is there such a thing as expertise in philosophy? Of what does that expertise consist?

Note that “the book” referenced in the first paragraph is my book, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth (Continuum 2010).

* * *

On Expertise: A Reply to King

The first published review of the book has come out, in the Spring 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Ethics. The review was written by Roger J.H. King.

It is certainly gratifying to read a sympathetic and largely positive review. King seems to understand the main intent of the book, which is to provide, as he puts it, “a propaedeutic” to ethical inquiry, that is, a kind of preparatory exercise. In other words, this is not, as he puts it, “a theoretical book.” (p.100)

The central mission of the book is to demonstrate the complexity of everyday judgments and decisions, and to encourage citizens and decision makers to uncover and analyze this complexity. (p.99)

So far, so good. This really is the mission of the book, as I understand it. It is clear, though, that King is not entirely satisfied with the book: he wishes I had taken on a different and more ambitious mission.

King opens the review with a list of important normative questions about “cities and their growth,” noting that “substantive answers to these and related questions would be useful guides to citizens and policy makers faced with concrete and practical problems.” (p.99) That I withhold any such guidance seems to be a source of frustration to King.

At the end of the review, he reinforces the point:

the book would have been improved if Kirkman had taken sides on some issues and used his framework to analyze some real, and difficult, policy decisions and conflicts to show how well it worked. Adopting a more prescriptive stance would give the book more substance, while still enabling it to guide ethical deliberation (p.100).

I think what is at work here is disagreement on a number of basic points regarding the nature of ethical inquiry and the appropriate role of philosophers in contributing to ethical inquiry.

King seems to be urging me to set myself up as an expert, one who is uniquely qualified to provide substantive answers to questions of meaning and value, and to make prescriptions to which citizens and policy makers ought to give heed. I’m not sure whether King would go so far, but he might be urging me to attempt to guide deliberation toward some particular end, one I have chosen on the basis of my own, specially informed judgment or, as it may happen, on the basis of my prior ideological (e.g., environmentalist) commitments.

This is a familiar model of expertise. If you want a substantive answer to a question about human health, you consult a physician. If you want a substantive answer to a question about markets and their behavior, you consult an economist. Does it not make sense, then, that if you want a substantive answer to a question about values and obligations, you consult an ethicist?

Actually, no. I have long suspected that matters of value and obligation are different from the concerns of the natural and social sciences in that, while one can be specially qualified to report and interpret data from one or another kind of empirical research, one cannot be specially qualified to give definitive answers to questions about what is good and what is right.

Those are questions each individual must answer for her or himself. If they abrogate that most basic responsibility, throwing their moral reins to some outside authority, some guru, some self-described expert, that’s their own folly. I certainly won’t encourage them by setting myself up as yet another expert.

As I see it, to attempt to guide deliberation in the way King suggests is tantamount to preempting deliberation, perhaps even hijacking it for purposes of my own. Were I to engage in deliberation myself, as a citizen, any suggestions or prescriptions I offer would have to stand or fall on their own merits, based only on the cogency of my reasoning. They have no special status, and others engaged in deliberation are free to fail entirely to be guided by them.

Now, insofar as I am an ethicist, I do think I have a kind of expertise. It consists not so much in being qualified to give answers, but in being especially good at asking questions, rooting out assumptions, critiquing institutions and procedures, and other such tasks aimed at fostering free inquiry among free human beings.  That is the only kind of guidance I hold myself qualified to offer.

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