On moral guidance, moral expertise, and philosophical counseling

As a philosophical counselor and moral philosopher, I believe our culture is conceptually muddled about the idea and prospect of self-improvement. On the one hand, we all hunger to be better, more fulfilled, happier persons. The self-help industry feeds this hunger without making us full. (The “Chinese food take-out” problem as Jay Bernstein once put it: You’re hungry again an hour later.) On the one hand, we get pretty irritable when somebody makes a recommendation without our permission. “Don’t tell me what to do or how to live. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And, besides, look at the way you’re living your life. And you are trying to give me advice?”

On the face of it, our demands seem contradictory. We want some guidance with our moral questions, but we don’t want to hear from someone whose affairs are not in order. But then when we get fed up and turn to some moral recipes and guidebooks for help (self-help anyone?), we end up feeling dissatisfied with the results. And rightly so.

The problem only intensifies once we go one more rung up the ladder. For there seems to be plenty of experts in the world, reasonable and competent ones too. There are economic experts, medical experts, legal experts, and policy wonk experts; there are zoologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, and astrophysicists; also, engineers, management consultants, NGO developers, and IMF god’s-right-hand-men. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of expertise in the modern world, and it could be said that the University is that great idea factory that gets paid to produce the Expert.

But is there such a thing as moral expertise, such a person as a moral expert?

The professional moral philosopher Gerald Dworkin doesn’t think so, and, among professional philosophers, he is not alone. For him, the moral expert is no more substantial than a wood nymph. In a blog entitled “Anything to Declare?,”, a blog I read about 2 years ago and have been wrestling with ever since, he claims that a moral expert is a person who has a knack for knowing what’s the right thing to do here and now. But there is no such thing as moral expertise, he argues, because the latter conception relies on putting our untested trust in the professed wisdom of the other without determining by our own lights whether we have good reason for doing so. For were I to grant such authority on trust alone, I would no longer be a moral agent since one necessary ingredient of my being a moral agent is that I exercise my independent judgment concerning what I should do. Hence, if I elect to “follow someone else’s advice,” this I do only because I have reason enough for endorsing it—sufficient grounds for making it my own. Taking moral advice is rather like looking in the mirror and seeing myself alone.

In case you got lost in the argumentative thickets above, the general idea is that being a moral person requires making up one’s mind, but following another’s guidance seems to entail relinquishing one’s autonomy. There is therefore, Dworkin thinks, something very peculiar about the moral life in that it resists, whole cloth, the model of expertise.

Up to this point, I have no truck with Dworkin, but here is the rub. If I understand him correctly, his corollary is that there is no moral guidance full stop, and that further conclusion seems to me flatly wrong.

To see why, I want to clarify the conception of the expert that I believe Dworkin and I are both operating with. Then, I want to open up a space of moral inquiry where a conversation partner can be led by what I shall term a “moral guide,” a figure, however, who is not a moral expert.

By expert, I mean a person with the requisite knowledge in some specific object domain whose authority we take on trust. In this definition, there are three conditions that need to be met. First of all, to have requisite knowledge is to be averse in matters (i) technical-procedural, (ii) factual-historical, or (iii) theoretical-abstract. An engineer has technical knowledge, a quantitative sociologist factual-historical, a theoretical physicist theoretical-abstract. Second of all, the expert’s knowledge claims must be bounded by a particular object domain, a carved-out, delimited space in which he or she speaks, writes, and dialogues. Third, the expert’s pronouncements are only taken seriously–that is to say, only taken authoritatively–within the object domain in which he is deemed an expert. Thus, we trust–or, in any case, are disposed to trust–the University of Chicago economist who speaks about GDP in Tunisia, but when the same economist advises us about our dental hygiene we may raise an eyebrow–plucked or unplucked.

So far, so good.

With Dworkin, I do not think that an ethicist or a philosophical counselor is a moral expert so understood. (This might be one reason why many of us groan when we read “Ask the Ethicist” in the NYT. For either Randy Cohen makes trivially true moral claims that anyone could have come up with, or he makes bizarre statements that seem not even remotely defensible.) First, a philosophical counselor makes no claim to having technical-procedural, factual-historical, or theoretical-abstract knowledge. (But self-help gurus  do, by god, with their recipes for living well!) Second, a philosophical counselor follows no strict object domain. Conversations may meander through psychology, history, autobiography, metaphysics, epistemology, family dynamics, and so on. That is a broad and wide terrain indeed. And, third, a philosophical counselor, unlike a guru or sage, does not expect–does not want!–his conversation partner to take what he says on trust. He would much prefer that his partner mull things over and see what he thinks.

But, for all that, I do not want to conclude, as I believe Dworkin does, that the moral life is a free-for-all. Too hippie-dippie, libertarian for me. I think we need to grant that the moral life is highly textured, immensely complex, and uncomfortably messy. In this, it is more like a self-portrait than the Form of a triangle. My wager is that many of those who readily dispense re-heatable advice presume not just that they “know better” but also that life, at its core, is simple and easy. It is not.

A philosophical counselor, therefore acknowledging irreducible moral complexity, can nonetheless provide exempla for living well: a number of models that have worked out reasonably well in the past and that could make some sense in the present. Seneca, for one, insisted that this “literary aspect” made up a sizable portion of highly beneficial philosophical consolation. In addition, he can help us to try out, rule out, and sort out our lives. Together, we evaluate what has not worked, and we work toward a conceptual reorientation, another way of being in the world. Finally, he can seek to lead an exemplary life in his thoughts, words, and deeds.

If this does not qualify as moral guidance, then I’m not sure what could. After all, what more could we human beings reasonably want–or need?

Summary of the Argument

1. We feel the need to improve our lives.

2. The self-help genre cannot satisfy our need for self-improvement.

3. There is no such thing as a moral expert. (In 3., I agree with Dworkin.)

4. A moral guide is not a moral expert. (In 4., I disagree with Dworkin.)

5. A philosophical counselor can be a moral guide.

6. A moral guide is someone who can help us improve our lives.

7. So, philosophical counseling can help us improve our lives.