Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ignoring Experts

Here's a common story: someone claims that a particular theory is wacky. "How could anyone be a fan of that theory?" the critic opines. "Look at all the devastating criticisms it has!" Building steam, the critic adds, "After all, these are simple objections, the kind discussed in an intro class! Hell, I'm no expert, and I'm fully aware of them! I've never heard a successful response to any of these objections. So why does the theory still persist?" (Of course, the only reason the critic would discuss such a theory is because there are experts who believe it.)

I think such critics are displaying hubris and shodding reasoning.

To explain why, I'll use a concrete example. In a blog post about utilitarianism, GMU economist Bryan Caplan recently wrote, "I am frankly mystified by the enduring popularity of a moral theory subject to so many simple but devastating counter-examples." He then offers a guess as to why utilitarians cling to their mistaken theory (they have a distorted view of alternative ethical theories). Silly utilitarians!

Now, I don't know whether utilitarianism is correct. That's not my beef here. I want to argue that Caplan needs to be a bit more humble.

Allow me to get all epistemic renegade on Caplan:
  • Many ethicists are utilitarians. (It is not, as far as I can tell, a tiny minority among professional philosophers of ethics. Caplan himself concedes that utilitarianism is enduringly popular.)
  • Surely, these ethicists are aware of these simple counter-examples.
  • Yet these ethicists have not abandoned utilitarianism.
  • So surely, these ethicists believe they have sophisticated responses to these simple counter-examples (along with positive evidence for utilitarianism).
  • Caplan most likely is not aware of many of these sophisticated responses.
  • Surely, the pro ethicists who aren't utilitarians are aware of the sophisticated responses to these simple counter-examples. After all, part of what it is to be a pro ethicist is to be up on the current debates, so they will have read the sophisticated responses from the utilitarians.
  • The non-utilitarian pro ethicists would probably not accept these simple counter-examples alone as enough evidence to disprove utilitarianism. Even if they have super-sophisticated counter-responses to the utilitarians, they probably recognize the initial force of at least some of the utilitarians' responses.
  • All these ethicists are more well-versed in the subject of ethics than Bryan Caplan. (They're experts on this issue, and Caplan, an economist, is probably not.)
Again, for all I know, these ethicists are completely wrong. Still, it seems clear that these philosophers are in a better epistemic position to judge the merits of utilitarianism than Bryan Caplan. And while the criticisms appear devastating to us non-experts, they clearly aren't viewed that way among the experts themselves--otherwise, most experts would agree that utilitarianism is wrong!

In other words, Caplan's evidence against utilitarianism most likely isn't good enough to show that the theory is wrong. The meta-evidence undercuts the simple evidence. Caplan should realize this. So why isn't Caplan deferring to their expertise?

Well, "defer" is probably the wrong word choice. I don't mean he should become a utilitarian. After all, there are a lot of non-utilitarian pro ethicists, too, so switching teams seems too drastic. But he should own his ignorance here, and lower his degree of credence (or perhaps suspend judgment altogether) that utilitarianism is the wrong theory of ethics.

Anyway, the moral: when there are "simple, devastating" criticisms of a theory, yet experts still believe that theory, then those simple criticisms are probably not as devastating as we non-experts think they are.

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