Were a student with absolutely no knowledge of the subject to enter into a debate with an expert over the intricacies of cancer treatment, the appropriate response may well be to tell the ignorant student to shut up. While it would be admirable were his ambition to better understand the complex subject by respectfully listening to the explanation given by one who knows better, it would be entirely inappropriate for him to contradict or argue with an expert when he has nothing of substance to contribute.
But imagine now that this student were to enter into a debate with a leading philosopher over the morality of the death penalty or euthanasia. It may be immediately clear that the student’s views are under-thought and confused whereas the professor’s are well-developed and systematic. Nonetheless, we would think it perverse to insist that the student should withdraw from the debate and defer to the judgment of the professor. Whereas in technical fields the lack of requisite knowledge or study disqualifies one from the debate, nothing of the sort can be said of normative questions. Everyone, it would seem, has a right to participate in debates over justice, morality, and aesthetics.
What explains this asymmetry between technical and normative expertise? Is the very concept of "normative expertise" even coherent? Why is it that the consensus of moral philosophers in matters of ethics seems to lack the authority commanded by the consensus of civil engineers in matters of bridge-building?
Among the most intriguing answers to the question is articulated by Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras. There, in the midst of a debate over whether virtue can be taught, Socrates explains that because all men have a stake in the good life, all men are entitled to give an opinion on normative matters, regardless how poorly formed.
He continues with a somewhat challenging analogy to flute playing. He notes that it is entirely appropriate for a poor flutist to inform the world of his lack of skill. But it would be utterly inappropriate for the dishonest man to loudly declare his dishonesty. Because honesty is part of living well, and because all men are invested in the project of living well (whether they realize it or not), all men must at least identify with the virtue of honesty. Though the reasoning here is somewhat strange, this is taken as a further proof of all men’s right to share in virtue and to participate in debates over virtue.
And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and when anyone else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be not of the favored few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise. I have explained to you, Socrates, the reason of this phenomenon.
And that you may not suppose yourself to be deceived in thinking that all men regard every man as having a share of justice or honesty and of every other political virtue, let me give you a further proof, which is this. In other cases, as you are aware, if a man says that he is a good flute-player, or skillful in any other art in which he has no skill, people either laugh at him or are angry with him, and his relations think that he is mad and go and admonish him; but when honesty is in question, or some other political virtue, even if they know that he is dishonest, yet, if the man comes publicly forward and tells the truth about his dishonesty, then, what in the other case was held by them to be good sense, they now deem to be madness. They say that all men ought to profess honesty whether they are honest or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is, that a man must have some degree of honesty; and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in the world.
I was recently reminded of this passage by Michael Walzer’s elegant explication of the character of the moral life in Interpretation and Social Criticism. I suspect that the Walzerian vision of moral thinking as interpretation, not discovery or enlightenment or instruction, poses a poignant challenge to what I have described as the new faith in an authoritative moral pedagogy demanded by contemporary campus activists. (I quote from Walzer's Tanner lectures, not the book they later became)
The claim of interpretation is simply this: that neither discovery nor invention is necessary because we already possess what they pretend to provide. Morality, unlike politics, does not require executive authority or systematic legislation. We don’t have to discover the moral world because we have always lived there. We don’t have to invent it because it has already been invented — though not in accordance with any philosophical method. No design procedure has governed its design, and the result no doubt is disorganized and uncertain. It is also very dense: the moral world has a lived-in quality, like a home occupied by a single family over many generations, with unplanned additions here and there, and all the available space filled with memory-laden objects and artifacts. The whole thing, taken as a whole, lends itself less to abstract modeling than to thick description. Moral argument in such a setting is interpretive in character, closely resembling the work of a lawyer or judge who struggles to find meaning in a morass of conflicting laws and precedents.
There are moral facts of that sort, but the most interesting parts of the moral world are only in principle factual matters; in practice they have to be “read,” rendered, construed, glossed, elucidated, and not merely described. All of us are involved in doing all these things; we are all interpreters of the morality we share. That doesn’t mean that the best interpretation is the sum of all the others, the product of a complicated piece of survey research — no more than the best reading of a poem is a meta-reading, summing up the responses of all the actual readers. The best reading isn’t different in kind, but in quality, from the other readings: it illuminates the poem in a more powerful and persuasive way. Perhaps the best reading is a new reading, seizing upon some previously misunderstood symbol or trope and re-explaining the entire poem. The case is the same with moral interpretation: it will sometimes confirm and sometimes challenge received opinion. And if we disagree with either the confirmation or the challenge, there is nothing to do but go back to the “text” — the values, principles, codes, and conventions that constitute the moral world — and to the “readers” of the text.
Morality, in other words, is something we have to argue about. The argument implies common possession, but common possession does not imply agreement. There is a tradition, a body of moral knowledge; and there is this group of sages, arguing. There isn’t anything else. No discovery or invention can end the argument; no “proof” precedence over the (temporary) majority of sages.