Friday, October 3, 2008

Experts on axiology

Continuing on the theme that I began with my last post, where I evaluated Plato's arguments in the Meno that virtue can't be taught, I'm going to look at whether there are experts on virtue. Or in fact, experts on any values in general. Can one really be an expert on axiology? There are people with expertise in areas of axiology, but these people have more historical knowledge. They know about various theories, their strengths and weaknesses, arguments against them, history of debates, etc. But the question is can one be, for example an expert in ethics, or in beauty. Can someone be an expert on what is the best way to live, or what is the most beautiful.

This issue does also come up in Plato, in particular in the Protagoras, where Protagoras in his great speech basically makes the argument that all people are teachers of virtue and that a young person that needs to learn virtue, learns from the community in general, from the great many experts around. Similar to the way that you learn language: every native speaker is basically an expert and you learn how to speak your native language from a great many of these experts. Nonetheless, Protagoras wants to justify his position as an instructor in virtue, for which he charges fees and earns his livelihood, by saying there are some people that are somewhat more knowledgeable of virtue and thus qualify as teachers. The parallel with language is useful. Despite that all native speakers know how to use the language correctly, some know it better: some know the written language and understand punctuation better, some have a wider vocabulary, some use the language more artfully, some can better explain the nuances of grammar that most of us employ without understanding. In short, there's sort of a baseline of proficiency at which nearly all people attain, but some outstrip the rest. Someone learning a language can use any of these people to reach this baseline, but if one wants to go further, one needs the assistance of a better expert.

But this parallel, can mislead us. There definitely are people who live more virtuous lives, but yet all of us recognize that they live better lives. Would Mother Theresa be an expert on virtue? All of us can clearly see that she is a moral exemplar. All of us understand virtue well enough to know it when we see it. The difference is a matter of self-determination, discipline, will-power, a willingness to make sacrifices or such. It'd be reasonable to say that Mother Theresa could be a good expert on how to do these things and thus better actualize the virtue we already recognize, but is she an expert on virtue more than the rest of us.

This is relevant as some foist themselves forward as experts on virtue, or take effort to espouse their theories of virtue. But when it all comes down to it, despite that they prop themselves up as the experts, their ideas are juried by the masses and many of these so called experts are found wanting. Kant achieved an incredible achievement in forming his detailed systematic ethics and very carefully integrating it into his elaborate system. But no one really lives by his ethics. Consequentialism and virtue ethics are more a part of the moral choices of the average person, and deontology is mostly regarded as lifeless and inflexible. The important thing is that it really is the collective opinion of the masses that is the expert opinion.

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