Does Morality Need Philosophers?

Ophelia Benson's post on Patricia Churchland's 2011 book 'braintrust' points out that, in contrast to the efforts of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, Churchland makes a much more modest claim for what she is doing. Indeed Churchland's claim "is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems." Harris on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Shermer, does seem to be claiming the goal of determining what is right or wrong rather than just how people in a certain context might judge it. I was happy to see this point made in a relatively high profile setting as it seems very much in line with my own earlier criticisms of Harris

But a parenthetical comment in Ophelia's first paragraph has prompted a discussion orthogonal to that of whether science answers moral questions - namely (but putting it a bit crudely) does philosophy do so either?

And I think an exploration and continuation of that discussion may be relevant to concerns some Philosophers seem to have about public perception of their discipline - perhaps including the recent "Physics vs Philosophy" wars.

Benson qualified her accusation of amateurism (directed at Shermer) with "I am an amateur, and that’s why I want to get moral philosophy from philosophers rather than non-philosophers, and why I wouldn’t myself try to set everyone straight about morality." Commenter 'jose' responds with "you shouldn’t go out of your way saying that someone who isn’t an expert on something can’t do a good job on the subject". To this Ophelia replies "I think a non-expert probably could do a decent job of writing a book on moral philosophy for a broad public, but it would require a different approach, with more modesty and declaration of non-expertise, more citation of actual experts, more of a survey approach, etc. Or one could write an essayistic book on the subject, and then expertise or non-expertise wouldn’t matter so much. Montaigne and Seneca weren’t academic philosophers, but they’re very worth reading. But the kind of thing Harris tried to do, and Shermer is now trying to do – yes, I think you need either expertise or a lot of advice from an expert." And commenter 'Landon' adds ".. to supposedly solve a problem that has vexed the great minds of the field for centuries? Yeah, I’m thinking Shermer ain’t enough. Or Harris. Or, frankly, anyone who doesn’t have some serious chops in moral philosophy." And in response to another comment "The discipline of philosophy considers those philosophical problems [referring to free will and consciousness], ones we have made considerable headway on in recent years, in fact."

Now of course I probably wouldn't want to read anything that wasn't, in some sense, expertly thought out and presented, so here I think that jose's and Ophelia's use of the word "expert" probably meant to refer to someone with specific training and credentials in academic moral philosophy - and that appears to be what Landon is saying also.

Jose kind of rolled over at this point but I just had to stick my oar in to "share the concerns of those who object to the weight you seem to attach to the authority of so-called 'experts' in moral philosophy rather than just looking at the quality of the arguments" and ask for "even one example of an interesting (philosophical) problem that has been solved by an 'expert' ".[1]

I was happy to accept Ophelia's "Maybe it doesn’t require special philosophical expertise." as close enough to agreement, but am not so sure about her "Dumb the way an outsider can be dumb" in reference to Shermer and Harris - especially considering Harris's claim to be a "philosopher"(acknowledged by Wikipedia for what that's worth!)

Commenter 'Eamon Knight' pointed out the usefulness of a knowledge of philosophical history as providing some protection from falling into known traps and I readily agreed that "If I am proposing a 'new' solution for an old problem I would be well advised to ask a philosopher to assess its novelty and point out any weaknesses." But I also insisted that "if I see an error in someone else’s argument I don’t need an expert to tell me whether it’s really an error."

Landon's extensive reply to my comments was very useful (Ophelia thought well enough of it that she elevated it to a 'Guest Post' in her blog), and it may even be true that my discomfort with the emphasis on philosophical expertise is unfounded.  But I seem to often hear philosophers complaining about lack of respect from their non-peers these days and so even some of them may be interested in finding out whether there is anything they could do to change that.

So I am going to read Landon's reply quite carefully to see both where it hits home for me and where I remain unconvinced.

He explains that he sees the value of experts as mainly "a heuristic device for finding better arguments".

In short, do not mistake “Experts are more likely to have good arguments” for “this is a good argument (solely) because it was forwarded by an expert.” Ophelia and I have both said something like the former, but neither of us have said anything like the latter.

While not claiming that you NEED to be a philosopher to see an obvious error in an argument, he adds some thoughts on why it might be helpful when the errors are less obvious.

However, many arguments offered by philosophers have been cleansed of OBVIOUS errors, so if the argument is at all competently formed, it’s going to take someone who has a good degree of philosophical competence to spot what errors persist. And, in my experience in teaching, undergrads frequently misunderstand the force of certain objections and misconstrue the consequences of various errors they detect. They also, usually due to lack of understanding of the nuances of certain terms of art, believe they see objections where none actually exist, which they would know if they had a greater familiarity with the supporting literature and thus a better understanding of the significance of the author’s use of THIS term or THAT term, rather than some other, in the context of the argument. So it’s not always true that you don’t need an expert to tell you if the error you (think you) see is really an error.

With regard to the detection of subtle errors, I think there is a certain arrogance in the assumption that others are not equally qualified. And with regard to the use of technical "terms of art", it is the responsibility of an author to keep the language appropriate to the intended audience. I would not claim to have found an error in a philosophical journal article without checking my understanding of the terms, but if one in the 'New Yorker' or 'Scientific American' doesn't mean what it says in plain language then it's just plain wrong. A kind of converse to this is that if I see what looks like a triviality in a popular account, perhaps I should look at a more "professional" source to see whether there is something deeper going on, but in at least two cases - Chinese Room and Gettier Problems - I have been unimpressed. (My objections may not have been undiscovered by others but they had to be pointed out to the proponents and their efforts at resuscitation reminded me more of Monty Python's parrot seller than anything else.)

Finally, in response to my question regarding an admittedly overstated version of his claim about progress toward solutions, Landon said the following:

In any case, the question is poorly formed. Philosophy does not “solve” problems in the scientific sense because philosophical problems are, by definition, beyond the realm of empirical investigation – that is, we can never “point to” some set of evidence that “proves” some particular answer is the correct one. Indeed, to the extent that a problem is amenable to such solutions, it migrates OUT of philosophy’s domain.

Philosophy problems are only ever more or less “settled,” because, lacking the ability to investigate the issues empirically, we (philosophers) try to define terms very clearly and then make the best arguments we can for various possible answers to the problems. We critique these arguments, and take the most plausible, least ontologically-promiscuous valid argument to be the best one. As “most plausible” is somewhat subjective, there will never be perfect agreement on any proposed solution, but that’s to be expected when we cannot appeal to the stern, austere realm of physical evidence for a final ruling. That said, there is a large degree of consensus on a number of issues, all of which are philosophical problems that have been at various points throughout history hotly contested by professional philosophers, and all of which were largely settled through the work of people who were essentially, for their respective eras, professional philosophers. A small sampling of these issues includes:

1) Materialism is the proper paradigm for understanding the operation of the mind (a refutation of dualism).

2) Religious belief is not rationally required (and there is only a rear-guard action maintaining that it is rationally permissible).

3) The correct paradigm for analyzing ethical problems is some variant of consequentialism that includes a concept of rights.

4) Democracy with universal adult suffrage is not only rational and ethically justifiable, it is probably the only rational and ethically justifiable form of government.

This doesn’t even mention the important work in logic that has made modern computer science possible.

 

It is certainly true that Landon's original comment only claimed progress rather than results and so I was wrong to respond by demanding results. But it may be that hearing "results"  for  "progress" is a tendency that is fairly widespread and that philosophers who want to protect themselves from misinterpretation need to be more proactive in making that distinction.

But now let's look at that list:

1) Materialism is the proper paradigm for understanding the operation of the mind (a refutation of dualism).

I strongly suspect that this position has come into favour more as a result of success of the scientific programme than from philosophical argument. In fact I see no logical reason why failure of the scientific approach might not bring dualism back into favour, and in any case just as in the more trivial case of statistical mechanics, the appropriate paradigm for understanding a phenomenon depends on the aspects of interest and it may be that referring to emergent mental phenomena as if they were fundamental is often the best way to deal with them. A possibly related issue is that the "non-overlapping magisteria" viewpoint may suggest that a language for pressing normative arguments - expressed in terms of such emergent phenomena - might be for all intents and purposes almost indistinguishable from a revival of dualism.

2) Religious belief is not rationally required (and there is only a rear-guard action maintaining that it is rationally permissible).

I doubt that many of the classical pagans believed that their religious belief was rationally required. It was socially required, but that is quite another matter. When arguments were made for the rationality of religion, the context was that there was a substantial social reward for making them - and for opposing them the consequences were less attractive.

3) The correct paradigm for analyzing ethical problems is some variant of consequentialism that includes a concept of rights.

All I can say is that that sounds like a pretty big bucket. Does pleasing God (or not) count as a "consequence"?

Or does moral judgement count as a consequence? My own moral compass is based on the question “Do I expect to feel good about myself in the long run after doing this?” [2]In fact I find it hard to imagine an alternative, so in one sense consequentialism seems tautological. Of course whether I will feel good about my action will depend partly on its actual physical consequences, partly on whether at least its expected consequences were (without unreasonable wishful thinking) expected to be “good”, and partly on how it fits with “rules” that are either innate or culturally imposed and which I do not expect to be able to free myself from feeling bound by, (and also on the consequent release of oxytocin of course!).

These may seem like silly examples but they only barely stretch the range of types of consequentialism that have been named by philosophers. It is ironic but perhaps a kind of poetic justice that since the term was invented to extend the scope of a criticism of utilitarianism the reaction to that criticism has been to continue extending the scope of the term so that eventually it encompasses everything!

4) Democracy with universal adult suffrage is not only rational and ethically justifiable, it is probably the only rational and ethically justifiable form of government.

Except perhaps for absolute dictatorship by an essentially random person chosen at birth as in classical Tibet?

Landon objected[3] to the cavalier tone of the original versions of  some of these responses so I may be making some small adjustments and clarifications subsequent to the original posting.

This doesn’t even mention the important work in logic that has made modern computer science possible.

Tell me about it! (and are you going to claim all the rest of mathematics as well?)

Actually a couple of other commenters took up the torch on this one and the conversation expanded to include a discussion of Kurt Godel which I will deal with in a subsequent post.

I may expand on some of the more cryptic responses above later, and also maybe add some more quibbles - especially with regard to some cases of non-convergent oscillation in the philosophical centre of gravity.

Landon follows the list of achievements with:

The problem you may be running into, which trips up a lot of people, is that by the time a non-philosopher runs into a philosophical issue that has reached consensus, it has already seeped into the culture and looks a lot like “common sense.” It can be hard to remember that there was a time that universal suffrage was not taken for granted as the “right” way to do things, when democracy itself was a mad, experimental proposal. Non-philosophers tend to point to the people who campaigned to bring those ideas to realization in the social and political systems, but those people were almost always persuaded of the rightness of their cause by reading the philosophers who championed those ideas in the first place. The founders of the United States brought forth constitutional democracy into this world, but they did so after becoming convinced by Locke and Rousseau of the correctness of such an enterprise. If you’re having trouble figuring out what effect philosophy has had on the world, look at a map depicting the number of governments founded on the principle of constitutional democracy throughout history.

Another commenter (Chris Hallquist’s  @#33 in Ophelia's list) expressed some skepticism on this which I share (and maybe raise a notch or two past his comfort level, so don't blame him for what follows).
In fact, it seems to me that with regard to who leads whom (the philosophical elite vs the common culture) it’s very much a chicken&egg issue. Ideas circulate without getting much traction until society is ready for them. Those who give the first expression that gets noticed and widely circulated do make a useful contribution, but if they hadn’t done so someone else would probably get there not much later.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect that Philosophers don’t always get the respect they think they deserve because they are perceived as overstating the uniqueness of their capacities and as condescending in their approach to non-peers. I think it may be useful for Philosophers to consider whether there is some truth in that, but if it is a misperception, any effort to correct it needs to be very careful not to reinforce it.

And, getting back to Churchland. On p2 we have this. “a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the ‘hard and fast’; that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident.” Hear! Hear![4]

 

 

 

[1] Here's my actual comment to Ophelia:

It doesn't take an expert to see that an appropriate "claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what *is* right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and ...may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems." So what of any value *does* require an "expert?

I appreciate your work on puncturing the balloons of Harris and Shermer and drawing attention to Churchland's much more useful work. But I don't see anything that she says (apart from references to philosophical context) which required special philosophical expertise to come up with, and I share the concerns of those who object to the weight you seem to attach to the authority of so-called "experts" in moral philosophy rather than just looking at the quality of the arguments.

I would be most grateful if either Ophelia or Landon (or anyone else!) could point me to even one example of an interesting (philosophical) problem that has been solved by an "expert" and explained in terms that Richard Feynman would find simple enough to justify a claim of real "expert" understanding.

 

[2]Actually that is probably not quite correct. If I were offered a drug with the promise that it would permanently erase any potential for negative future self-judgement then if I were a good person I might not take it - even though it would promise to make me "feel good about myself".  On the other hand if I was tempted to take it I might be deterred by how totally evil I would feel in the moments before it took effect. The question of how to discount outcomes over time has always bedevilled all forms of Utilitarianism, but even Bentham and Mill did not claim an actually computable algorithm for evaluating alternatives, so I think that even if my claimed strategy is left open on that score it may still be assigned a label as some kind of consequentialism (so long as I can find a suitably erudite-sounding modifier).

[3]From his comment #31 to the linked post at Ophelia's:

Your assessment of my list of more-or-less settled issues confirms my initial impression that you lack a sufficient grasp of philosophy to really understand what you’re talking about here. As to #1, arguments for materialism about the mind predated any significant success in the scientific program and, indeed, served to convince a number of very smart people that the scientfic program was worthwhile. Likewise, for #2, while I cannot speak to the pagans as such, for centuries it was precisely the position of most prominent philosophers that religious belief was the only rationally defensible position. The irrelevant non-sequiturs offered for #3 and #4, as well as the flippant closing comment which reveals your misunderstanding of the relative roles of logic and mathematics (logic is a branch of philosophy and prior to math, as has been discussed upthread), also show that you’re in a bit over your head. Likewise, your impression that philosophers are “more appropriately the recorders and reviewers” popular thought than (generally) intellectual pioneers reveals a profound lack of familiarity with the history of ideas.

[4]Landon subsequently responded to this with:

As for Churchland, while you might find her quote inspiring, I must conclude that you’re in no position to evaluate the accuracy of her assessment. I’m glad you like it, but that’s immaterial.

Incidentally, the Churchlands have offered a number of important arguments, of which “Neurophilosophy” is a part, but their program has been largely refuted. Patricia Churchland is entitled to her views about moral philosophy, but many of her arguments have been shown to be flawed. Take that for what you will.

When the positions of one "expert" are without clarification dismissed by another as "largely refuted" and "shown to be flawed", who then is one to believe?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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