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.

What should schools look like in the 21st C.?

What does it mean to educate young persons?

1. It means to equip them with the technical and procedural skills they need in order to maximize their rational self-interest in the increasingly global marketplace. (Technical skills–Vocation–Market Society ethos)

2. It means to open up spaces and provide them with opportunities for realizing their capacity as making-beings. (Craftsman tools–Neomedieval–Commune ethos)

3. It means inviting them to examine the nature of a good life and to go in search of wisdom. (Virtues–Ancient–Wisdom ethos)

What are the problems with our current understandings?

1. The testing culture is concerned solely with the Technical skills–Vocation–Market Society ethos.

2. The Craftsman culture seems necessary but not sufficient. Not sufficient, first of all, because some students will still need to master a set of technical, portable skills. Not sufficient, second of all, because all of us will  need to honor the spiritual-philosophical dimension of human experience (Virtues–Ancient–Wisdom ethos).

3. The Wisdom ethos also seems necessary but not sufficient. People like me have had to learn how to get their hands dirty. I’ve had to confront my own fear of manual labor in order to learn how to maintain and repair my bike. In starting my own philosophical counseling business, I’ve had to become adept at using a set of technical tools that are no doubt the product of my public school education.

What should schools look like in the 21st C.?

They will need to be committed to “thicker skills” acquisition (technical plus craftsman) and to ascesis, the question for self-understanding.

Philosophical counseling and the language of trying things out


There is a beautiful line in the late philosopher Robert Nozick’s book The Examined Life about taking a position. Nozick confesses that when he was younger he believed, like any good analytic philosopher, that he had to take a position on everything. As he got older, he realized that “position-taking”–the presumed need to make up one’s mind and stand behind something of ultimate importance–might have been his adolescent mistake. Nozick had managed to grow up.

The Language of Trying Things Out

What might it mean to try things out?

1. Trying things out is not like taking a position. Its commitment to this way of life is more provisional but, for all that, not nothing.

2. Trying things out is not a dress rehearsal. It is the thing itself, actual and serious like love.

3. Philosophical counseling, the forum in which conversation partners agree to try things out, is a gamble from first to last. For that matter, so is life, and then so is new public thinking.

4. But the gamble is not a drunken or an irrational one. Trying out this line of thought, this way of life follows from living out some previous way of life and determining, ultimately, to rule that one out. There is a logic, albeit not a logic of entailment, to this gamble.

5. In addition, this essay–this attempt, this sally–aims at something of ultimate value and does so with some reasonable hope of success. From the outset, it is not clear whether success, however we understand this, is achievable, yet in order to get things underway we must have reason to believe that success is possible.

6. It follows from 4. and 5. that there is a negative (ruling out) as well as positive (aiming at) dimension to the essay.

7. But how will we persist in the great tension of not-knowing? How will we see this thing through to the end? We will need to cultivate the virtues of persistence (Lacan: “Do not give up on your desire.”), completion (“Let’s see this thing through“), and judgment (“Caute! How far have we gone? How do we know that we are on the right path? Did we, perchance, make a wrong turn?”)

8. Then too there will be an art of letting go. This too must be cultivated. We must learn how to let go of a line of thought that runs itself out. Yet letting go is not the same thing as giving up. It is a loosening of desire, a lessening of valuing for what I have determined, through living out, simply won’t work. And then holding onto may be a sign of being stubborn, fearful, tight-fisted, or worse yet, despairing of alternatives. Holding onto is opposed in spirit to trying out and letting go.


I want to learn how to grow up more. Trying things out and weathering all the letting-go’s: this I want to call wisdom.

Ivan Illich on ascesis

ASCESIS. Introduction, etymology and bibliography 1989.-Ivan Illich

The following is a brief excerpt.  The article can be read in its entirety here.

NB: Pierre Hadot has written extensively about ascesis in What is Ancient Philosophy? and in Philosophy as a Way of Life.

I want to cultivate the capacity for second thoughts, by which I mean the stance and the competencethat makes it feasible to inquire into the obvious. This is what I call learning.

Learning presupposes both critical and ascetical habits; habits of the right and habits of the left. I consider the cultivation of learning as a dissymetical but complementary growth of both these sets of habits. I see that since the foundation of the University in the late Middle Ages, the humanist tradition has preeminently fostered the formation of critical habits. Higher Education has come to be the refinement of the habits of the mind, while military service, schools, the conjugal family and later the media have taken over the sad remnants of the “heart’s” formation.

This preponderance of critical over ascetical training for insight and wisdom can be understood as a necessary condition for the science which we now have. Like the science it brought forth, this reduction of intellectual formation to critical procedures constitutes something which cannot adequately be compared with anything in other cultures of epochs. What is worse: we now tend to take this one-sided style of learning to be traditional and historians of education project the present prejudice into the past. This not only makes it very difficult to understand Plato or Plotinus, Marc Aurelius or Boethius, Abaelard or Ockham. It also makes it almost impossible to inquire into the current status of science as the source of the obvious by which we live. Scientific assumptions are the appropriate shell for ascetically untrained, learned persons.

The habits of the heart and the cultivation of its virtues are peripherals to the pursuit of higher learning today.

Agonising, agonism, and nuclear power

Bridget McKenzie @ New Public Thinking discusses with finesse and honesty the nuclear problem in the context of climate change. Here is my comment.

Dear Bridget,

There is a lovely line in the late philosopher Robert Nozick’s book The Examined Life about taking a position. Nozick confesses that when he was younger he believed, like any good analytic philosopher, that he had to have a position on everything. As he got older, he realized that ‘position-taking’–the presumed need to have a position on everything of general importance–might have been his adolescent mistake. Nozick had managed to grow up.

What you are describing above–beautifully and succinctly–seems to be the endgame of a certain public adolescence: position-taking entails point-scoring, agonism, moralism, and ad hominem attacks. But what you offer, I think, is another way of public thinking.

Rather than believe that there is some universal calculus that will yield the One Right Position, you see public life as consisting of an incommensurable, competing goods (see Martha Nussbaum, Steven Lukes, Isaiah Berlin). And yet, rather than sliding into skepticism and its suspension of judgment, you seem to go with the Montaignean essay. Let’s try out these ideas, run with them, and see where they take us. Let’s do so provisionally while still being committed to them. We are invited to think. Will we accept?

In short, the task is to come up with a new way of public thinking–one that is more provisional, more honest, more reflective, and, yes, more dialogical–a way of thinking that is also a form of deep, reverent commitment.