Bryan Caplan  

What Are Philosophers Experts At?

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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." This would have been an awkward argument to make to my face, since the participants literally spanned the range from radical Kantianism ("Consequences are morally irrelevant") to fanatical Singer-style utilitarianism ("There is no fundamental moral difference between killing and letting die").

The upshot: Deferring to philosophers' consensus is hardly the bitter pill (for me) that Tyler makes it out to be. Many philosophers believe that they personally have virtually all the answers. (Witnessing their disputes was an... experience). But few philosophers believe that their profession has more than a handful of answers.

As for atonal music, I'm still waiting to be invited to a conference for composers!


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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

I think what Tyler was really meaning to say was that moral philosophers are experts at being wise and good. And moreover, that the consensus among moral and political philosophers is that the best way to promote the good is via a socialist economy.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Rue Des Quatre Vents wrote:

I think what Tyler was really meaning to say was that moral philosophers are experts at being wise and good. And moreover, that the consensus among moral and political philosophers is that the best way to promote the good is via a socialist economy.
Yes, and my point is that Tyler is jumping the gun. Moral philosophers themselves don't think their field generates expertise at being wise and good.

TGGP writes:

he consensus among moral and political philosophers is that the best way to promote the good is via a socialist economy.
I'm pretty sure they aren't mostly libertarians, but do you have any evidence that is actually their consensus?

Greg Ransom writes:

There are all kinds of philosophers. Take a look at what the good philosphers of biology have done -- say David Hull or Alex Rosenberg. What philosophers in this sub-discipline have done is advance that science of Darwinian biology by clear up all kinds of conceptual and procedural confusions in that field, and pointing out where trouble still lies. These philosophers tend to be much better than the biologists at sorting out the most complex conceptual difficulties -- its is their "niche", their spot in the division of labor, the thing they have specialized in.

So, one thing philsophers are good out is untangling incredibly hard conceptual confusions -- and they are also good at identifying where trouble still lies.

One problem: many philosophers beginning from various mistaken understandings of language and concepts, mistakes which they import into other fields. This is perhaps the great source of the lack of agreement in the field -- and the source of constant paradox and conceptual trouble. I might recommend Wittgenstein on this topic ..

Scott Scheule writes:
As for atonal music, I'm still waiting to be invited to a conference for composers!

Fortunately, there's no need for that invite, since I myself am blessed with a bachelor's degree in music theory. I impart to you that the consensus in the field is that atonal music is good, sometimes very good, though many suggest that charlatans have an easier job fitting into the atonal crowd than elsewhere.

There are no members of the field that I'm aware of who don't accept the greatness of Schoenberg and the progress represented by the abandonment of tonality.

Though personally, I'm not a big fan.

Schoenberg is somewhat harder to like than other atonal composers. Much more approachable are Copland and Stravinsky's investigations of atonality.

Scott Scheule writes:
As for atonal music, I'm still waiting to be invited to a conference for composers!

Fortunately, there's no need for that invite, since I myself am blessed with a bachelor's degree in music theory. I impart to you that the consensus in the field is that atonal music is good, sometimes very good, though many suggest that charlatans have an easier job fitting into the atonal crowd than elsewhere.

There are no members of the field that I'm aware of who don't accept the greatness of Schoenberg and the progress represented by the abandonment of tonality.

Though personally, I'm not a big fan.

Schoenberg is somewhat harder to like than other atonal composers. Much more approachable are Copland and Stravinsky's investigations of atonality.

Robin Hanson writes:

If even moral philosophers have no expertize at morality, they how can you conclude that you do? And if you have no expertize, on what basis do you conclude that you are right and everyone else is wrong?

Matt writes:

Philosophy is what we call it if we don't understand the science.

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

I do believe that the vast majority of political and moral philosophers have strong left-wing tendencies. This is based on my graduate study in Harvard's and Oxford's philosophy departments, as well as from the opinions expressed at various conferences on the subject. I do not know of any surveys on the matter, but there's no reason to doubt that these academics differ from their colleagues in other departments in the humanities. Among all faculty, there is undoubtedly a left-wing bent.

I myself do not believe that the study of moral and political philosophy makes someone wise and good. Which is why I abandoned my studies of the subject.

Scott Scheule writes:

On the subject of atonal music, I just found this link to various dodecaphonic T-shirts.


Robin, one needn't be an expert in something to know it. I, for instance, know that things fall down, even without any expertise in physics.


Bryan justifies his moral beliefs on his own moral intuition. Knowledge being (classicly at least) justified true belief, and intuition being a valid justificatory instrument arguendo, he knows his beliefs are true. That does of course require him to rate his own chances of being right higher than others', a kind of epistemological egotism, but such is the case with anybody who thinks they're right, no? Even you presume you're right about the widespread bias of people, I take it.

None of this answers your larger point about the inherently dishonest nature of disagreements, but it does show that Bryan's view on morality is scarcely exceptional among disagreements.

Troy Camplin writes:

If you read your Plato,you see that Socrates already did the work of running around and proving that experts don't really know what it is that they are experts at. Ask a moral philosopher what morals are, and he will give you examples, but will he give you a definition that does not include examples?

There was once a time when phillosophers took the holistic view of the world, and attempted to explain the world as a whole, through its various parts. They did so to first learn what the world was really like, and to then advise on what the best life is to live. It's been a long time since philosophers did that. Though there does seem to be hope in people like Lou Marinoff. I myself should be considered a philosopher in the old sense of the term, though now I get called an Interdisciplinarian.

Tyler Cowen writes:

Keep in mind that conferences tend to be weighted toward people who reflect readily identifiable and to some extent extreme views ("surely we need a Kantian there"), rather than typical views. But even if there is not much positive consensus, would they not all agree that *your* moral views are quite wrong?

Scott Scheule writes:
Keep in mind that conferences tend to be weighted toward people who reflect readily identifiable and to some extent extreme views ("surely we need a Kantian there"), rather than typical views.

Nice point!

Mike Kenny writes:

What field would be composed of experts on what is good? Law perhaps? Politics? These fields are steretypically thought of as where the least moral people go, but really, these fields concern themselves with figuring out what decisions should be made, what duties we should follow, and what the answers should be to difficult questions that need answers in a certain time frame. Hence general ethics might be a way of describing a major concern of these fields. Perhaps the members of these fields are particularly moral and the people who hate them particularly immoral.

TGGP writes:

Scot Scheule, do you disagree with anyone on things falling down? Doesn't our intuition also tell us that heavier things fall faster though experts tell us they do not?

Troy Camplin, what did holism ever accomplish? I will gladly take the scientific advances of reductionism.

Bryan, all you need to do to salvage your disagreement is to abandon moral realism. Come on in, the water's fine.

Scott Scheule writes:
Scot Scheule, do you disagree with anyone on things falling down? Doesn't our intuition also tell us that heavier things fall faster though experts tell us they do not?

No and yes, which are the answers you want. But what's your point? That any fact that is not universally agreed upon can only be justified by deferral to experts? That seems an odd, and false, stance.

Bryan, all you need to do to salvage your disagreement is to abandon moral realism. Come on in, the water's fine.

Incidentally, one can also salvage any disagreement he has within any field by abandoning belief in the reality of that field's subject matter. Can't make up your mind between the Copenhagen interpretationists and the Many Worlders? Dodge the question, and the answer's easy: solipsism! This has been my habit for 25 long years, and ever since I've won every argument with all you fevered dreams of my imagination who insist that you're real people.

Troy Camplin writes:

Reductionism is wonderful and has accomplished amazing feats -- in the realms of physics and chemistry. All our incredible technological feats have been accomplished through scientific reductionism -- only all those feats have been in the realms of physics and chemistry. Reductionism applied to biology has resutled in a mixed bag at best -- the complexities are becoming increasingly obvious. And where has reductionism gotten us in psychology, economics, sociology, literature, philosophy, and the arts? Nowhere. In textual analysis, reductionism was introduced under the label of deconstruction, and the absurdities of that are beginning to become evident. This is not to say that reductionism doesn't have its place in understanding complex phenomena -- one does have to understand the parts, after all -- but complex phenomena are more than the sum of their parts. To understand complex phenomena, we have to understand the emrgent patterns as well as how the parts interact with one another to create those patterns. In truth, holism hasn't yet had its day. It had to wait for reductionism to run its course as something that would work by itself. Holism -- or, more accurately, a combination of holism with reductionism -- is the new frontier. The work in complex systems is only jsut beginning -- it is in the same situation as very early quantum physics, which didn't seem to be worth much other than to explain a few strange phenomena. Few would have guessed that in a short period of time it would give us nuclear power (and bombs), personal computers, and cell phones, among other things.

Robin Hanson writes:

Scott, yes, I'm talking about "epistemological egotism" and yes it is not greatly different here than in other disagreements. I think most people agree with me that biases are widespread.

sbw writes:

You philosophers are definitely experts at something. But what is that something?

I thought it was helping people deal with the simple daily problems of living.

At least it was until the Capital-P philosophers started chasing their tails.

Regards/Stephen

Douglas B. Rasmussen writes:

Bryan,

The question you ask is as old as Socrates. It's the same one dealt with in the Gorgias and the Republic. To raise this question shows that the philosophical enterprise is, despite its current situation, alive and well. Indeed, your desire to get the "bigger and deeper picture" indicates that you are very much the philosopher.

Contrary to the graduate students and philosophers you encountered at your recent meeting, I would say that philosophy is much more than concept clarification and analysis of arguments. It seeks answers regarding the nature of being, knowledge, beauty, truth and goodness. It even tries to find the principles by which one might distinguish a legitimate political/legal order from one that merely exists.

There are certainly those who deny this view of philosophy, but what it interesting is that despite all of the debate, this view remains perennial.

Doug

Charlie 0893 writes:

Can someone please explain the point of professional philosophy to me? I can philosophize all I want with other people, but why should I get paid for it? Why should someone get paid to think about and argue about issues that, generally, are the types of issues with which each man must decide for himself. I refer to Mel Brooks' History of the World Part I. When Mel Brooks' character tries to collect unemployment, he tells the teller he is a "stand-up philosopher." To this the teller responds, "Oh, so you're a *Bullshit Artist*. Did you bullshit last week?"

This, in my opinion, sums up my stance on philosophers. It's great as a hobby, but it's really only bullshitting when you get right down to it.

Scott Scheule writes:

Robin,

Could be. In my experience, while people agree widely that bias exists, I've found few who make the claim that disagreement is dishonest.

Troy Camplin writes:

People should get paid to do philosophy because 1) not everyone is good at it, 2) not everyone has the time to do it (and time is money, so you need money to have the time to do it), and 3) philosophy can have huge long-term effects. The Aristotlean West is a much different place than the Buddhist-Confucian East. The Scottish philosophers laid the groundwork for the Americann Revolution. Roussean laid the groundwork for the French Revolution (and subsequence egalitarian-driven revolutions that have typically been blamed primarily on Marx, who certainly had his hand in thiings since the advent of the 20th century). Many of the problems we see in the modern West can be blames on postmodern philosophy. So philosophy is extremely important. And suporting the right philosophy -- meaning, the right philosophers -- is perhaps one of the most important things in the world.

sbw writes:

Troy, when it really gets to be fun is when you tie Socratic West, Confucian East, Marxian dialectic, and Scottish moral philosophers like Adam Smith together using the insight that current history gives us of what doesn't work.

Nevermind the deadends of moral relativism and lack of absolute knowledge that the last 125 years of philosophers think they have run up against. As a practical matter, we really are on the verge of useful social understanding accessible across cultures.

Troy Camplin writes:

I'm more into a Hegelian-Nietzsche dialectical synthesis view of dialectics vs. Marxist dialectics, but other than that, I'm with you.

sbw writes:

Troy, thanks for the pointer. I'll look.

Regards/sbw

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