Expertise is the child of two parents: complexity and repetition. Its essence is rational thought repeatedly applied to difficult operations. In the language of epistemology, expertise is the conceptualization of the uniqueness of experience through skill or knowledge. In ordinary language it is finding common qualities in similar work. Malcolm Gladwell was onto something central to its nature in Outliers, saying that it requires ten thousand hours of focused effort whether one is a young Bill Gates learning computer programming or The Beatles playing very long sets in German nightclubs. The nub of expertise is repetitive, focused attention, hours upon hours of it. But though this is necessary, it is not sufficient because not all experiences are open to its possibilities. Expertise, it turns out, may be complex enough to require experts to recognize it.
It is an inferior means of knowing to empirical science, but it remains vital for correspondence knowledge (see “What Makes It True?”). While empirical science offers a more reliable warrant for truth claims, its domain must necessarily be more limited. If something cannot be observed, isolated, quantified, measured, experimented upon, or squeezed into the paradigms natural science recognizes, it cannot claim the prestige of science, though that very prestige tempts all manner of pretenders to don empirical trappings. But don’t be fooled. For the kinds of experiences it can address, no approach to knowledge can surpass empiricism for two simple reasons: its methodology limits the kinds of errors reason makes as it approaches experience, and therefore it also dramatically narrows the kinds of experiences that science can successfully make sense of. So for that limited number, empirical science is king. But what about all the other experiences that science must ignore, those that cannot be quantified or described with the precision of mathematical language, whose variables cannot be limited or isolated, whose essentials are not perceptual, or which cannot be replicated? To claim knowledge in these, we use a fairly rigorous reasoning process suited to a broader range of experience and calculated to secure truth by a preponderance of evidence. We use expertise.
We know that practitioners of true science are also experts in their field, but the warrants for these two powerful proofs of judgment derive from different aspects of their profession. A physician may tap into his expertise to diagnose a patient’s illness, aware that no manifestation of disease is identical to any other. He certainly meets Gladwell’s minimum in this endeavor, having spent so many exhaustive hours as an apprentice diagnostician in medical school and residency. That is already a powerful proof of judgment. But it is married to an even stronger one. His prescription for a cure will be empirical and will rely on double blind clinical trials and carefully calibrated analysis of results. Laboratory research is a skill requiring expertise: it involves many steps that are sequential but applied to varied experiences. Its results, if done correctly, are empirical. Empirical practice limit variables, ideally to one, and relies on repeated clinical trials. Results are expressed in the precise language of mathematics. To visualize the distinction further, consider another kind of professional who may have expertise without empirical resources. The literature PhD. has learned the modes of academia through an equally long apprenticeship: she is an expert at research in a narrow field of literary study required to join the doctoral ranks, but as there is nothing empirical upon which to base her judgments, her profession must always exist in a fog of theory, though she well may be an expert at negotiating whatever current framework her advisors find congenial. So though we find that all natural scientists are experts, we find many more experts in other and less reliable fields covering a broad range of activities.
A subject is open to expertise if it involves operations that are similar enough to stimulate points of comparison yet different enough to allow those points to be distinguished and analyzed through rational effort. Their relationship may be causal or sequential or correlated in some other way. That is what the rational analysis of the experience’s components will reveal. Consider the tennis pro teaching an eager student the serve. Here is a discrete operation the expert performs without conscious thought before the awed student: the yellow blur whizzes inches over the net. In this the pro embodies expertise as skill, having reduced a complex process of discrete steps into a single, fluid, and seemingly effortless habit. She knows what her student is about to discover: the only way to achieve that habit is by constant, closely-attended practice. The discrete steps must be rationally isolated and considered in sequence. They then must be practiced, perhaps in separate steps, until the clunky motions grow more fluid and skillful. It is an irony of developing expert skill that what begins with such close rational step-by-step focus only succeeds when the mind has processed it into a single and habitual action. In his wonderful essay “Habit,” the pragmatist psychologist William James remarks that such thoughtlessness is a very good thing, else we might spend half the day struggling with our buttons and tying our shoes. Though easy to see in physical skills development, expertise presents a comparable challenge in fields requiring knowledge. A class of college physics students were given a problem requiring them to calculate the force necessary to push a lawnmower of a certain weight up a fifteen degree slope. As they struggled to find the right formulae, the professor jotted a quick diagram on paper and roughly calculated the force required and announced it to the class. When they complained that he was imprecise, he reminded them that the problem hadn’t specified the height of the grass or the hardness of the soil, so an estimate was the best they could do. That was expertise. But like the novice tennis player, the physics students had to be clunky before becoming fluid, so that they could. It is in dividing the subject into the proper steps and in considering their proper sequence and connection that expertise is made, and that can only happen with repetition and examination. Fluidity signals mastery. It is the seal of the expert, whether a short-order cook or a Supreme Court justice, an auto mechanic or a sommelier.
As a warrant for truth claims, expertise can pass a very high bar because it subjects experience to a necessary corrective. Though we all use undistilled experience promiscuously as justification for our truth claims, honesty must compel us to admit that it is a very weak proof of judgment. No two experiences are alike, even, say, two tossings of the same coin. For no matter how identical the two operations might seem, one thing must always differ: time. It changes context. That is why no flip of a coin can ever be predicted. Heads may come up in ten straight coin flips, but the eleventh is still literally a toss-up. Our everyday experiences rush by in a blur of partial attention and endless permutation of circumstance, hardly the kind of experience calculated to end in certainty for the snap judgments we make a thousand times a day. Expertise slows down that blur and through a rational analysis of experience, allows us to distill its nature more clearly while also paying due deference to the uniqueness of context. The novice tosses the ball a little high, a little low, or left or right: the arc of the racket catches it differently, and the ball flies over the line or into the net. Each serve is made, considered for awhile and repeated, and yet again. A hundred serves later, the ball contacts the racket predictably and drops into the serve box. Another few hundred and it reliably flies low and hard and true. Each serve is kind of the same and kind of different. Expertise masters both the accidents and essentials of a single kind of experience.
Contrast this process with the poor drone on the auto assembly line, leaning into the frame of the pickup to screw in the cover plates for the interior lights. Again and again, the worker twists in and the screwdriver spins and the next frame advances. Developing expertise requires that experiences be not be too similar. There is nothing to consider rationally here and very little to improve upon. One might as well be an expert at blinking or breathing. Too simple operations defy expertise.
So do too complex ones, and here we must post some warnings. Should an experience be so complex that its components cannot be rationally isolated and sequenced, it cannot lend itself to the development of expertise. One may be a deeply experienced participant in an activity without legitimately claiming to be an expert, though I will concede the word is tossed about pretty carelessly. Teaching is an activity I worked at for most of my adult life. I could never claim to be an expert. The activities involved, the processes required in the interaction between student and subject matter and teacher, and, most importantly, the criteria for success and therefore for mastery: all of these are too poorly understood, too organic, and far too complex for me to claim expertise as a teacher. They cannot be isolated from each other. They cannot be sequenced. They cannot be sufficiently analyzed. Therefore, they are not subject to rational analysis or fairly linear improvement. The best I can hope to attain in such efforts is competence, an approach reliant on broadly studied experience that is certainly preferable to a novice’s abilities but is as deeply inferior to expertise as expertise is to empiricism. And if I feel bound to make that admission, many others should also dial back their claims to expertise. On the continuum of reliability for correspondence knowledge, expertise merges into empiricism on one side and broader competencies on the other, each step expanding the number of experiences it is capable of judging while narrowing the level of certainty. Those that are too similar or too different are not fit subjects for its achievement. The metric is the variability of the experience and the clarity with which it can be considered.
Consider the field of psychology. Like all human sciences, its empirical ambitions must wreck upon the rock of free will whose unpredictability and ambivalence frustrate the determinism that makes empirical prediction possible. (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem”). The utter failure of psychology to achieve true empirical status is fully demonstrated by the proliferation of paradigms that have characterized its practice from its origins in the Enlightenment. Despite its spectacular unsuitability as a true science, psychologists continue to act as though it were. In the face of the impossibility of empirically verifying theories of the unconscious, subconscious, and all the Freudian and Jungian fantasies of their impacts on free will, psychology in the 1960’s retreated from picking at its imagined structures of motivation and chose to focus on free will’s consequence rather than its preferences: the paradigm of behaviorism. But that effort could not rise to the bar of empiricism nor even of expertise. When the tennis pro tosses the ball up to serve, she knows how it will contact the racket. Behaviorism could observe individuals’ response to reward/punishment stimuli, but it could not reliably predict it for the individuals it was observing. That made it a good descriptive practice, particularly for large numbers. Psychology can observe that many mass shooters begin with spousal abuse, but it cannot therefore predict that any one abuser will choose to pick up an automatic weapon. That kind of broad, static description offers therapeutic applications, but in intentionally abstaining from approaching what is not observable, behaviorism also abstained from explaining its causes. And because persons enjoy preferential freedom, these broad descriptive patterns could never predict individual behavior. One of today’s popular paradigms in psychology recognizes that limit and embraces it. Cognitive psychology defers to human preferential freedom and seeks to engage what psychology has traditionally denied: that persons are autonomous and therefore not subject to empirical prediction. The black box of human will continues to lure psychologists to theorize on motivation despite the enormous unpredictability of the human personality. No wonder practitioners report their own personal experiences the source of their “expertise.” Their plight is echoed in all the soft sciences. The intersection of undistilled experience and undisciplined reflection upon it is an intensely private place, and the application of free will is far too unpredictable to allow the disciplines that must consider it the determinism that a true science demands (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”).
Can any soft science pass the lower bar for expertise? Can the economists, sociologists, criminologists, and ethnologists claim a less confident level of a more generalized prediction of human will? I will with some confidence say “no” for one of two reasons. Some, like economics and anthropology, are simply too poorly understood as disciplines, subject to wildly differing foundational paradigms, and lacking in the predictability and consistency the tennis coach and physician demonstrate. Others, like sociology and criminology, are so broad in their objects of study that they cannot be isolated from other and related fields that must impact human preference. Economists insist on limiting their study to quantifiable factors in their quest for scientific status, but issues of value refuse to be put in an empirical box, and so economists find themselves repeatedly taken aback by the choices of their subjects. At least economics has numbers to tell part of the story. Other human sciences are far less quantitative. Note how variable and anecdotal even their academic publications are, how singular and unrepeatable the experiences that form the bases of their conclusions. These limitations cumulatively challenge claims to expertise. We can observe the sad befuddlement of the economist appraising the wreckage of an economy shortly after having issued an optimistic outlook or of the therapist who wrings her hands over a patient’s descent into madness. I will gladly concede that narrowing the focus of any of these areas might well conduce to the development of expertise. The psychologist who has spent years studying patients with anxiety may speak with some confidence about that narrow disorder as may the economist who works in bilateral trade arrangements. The experiences each examines are numerous yet also complex, so they allow the similarities and differences of rational analysis that build true expertise, though they also resemble the variable experiences I confronted as a teacher. Whether a human science focus can be narrowed sufficiently to produce expertise rather than a broad competence is a question that depends on the professional opportunities that might reward the very hard work and years of focus that allow expertise to flower as well as the nature of the experiences themselves. One thing is sure. That ability must be denied to the broad paradigms of the human sciences whose objects of examination feel free to merge interests and to thwart prediction. It is not clear to me that whatever paradigmatic background soft science offers to its adherents can ease the path to expertise in any discernible way except to allow practitioners to continually narrow their interests until their own examined experience allows expertise to develop.
Expertise faces far greater challenges as it shifts its focus from judgments of truth to those seeking goodness just as all claims to knowledge must (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good”).
Empiricism has been defeated by that challenge (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). As a lesser and broader source of knowledge, may we expect expertise to have more luck, to identify goodness in any of its three forms: utility, quality, or morality? It seems clear that expertise may with confidence make judgments on questions of simple utility just as empiricism can. The surgeon will use some instrument or technique that her surgical expertise has shown to be a good means to excise a tumor just as she might judge one drug as a good curative for a condition based on clinical trials. But neither the condition nor the operation can be judged as good in itself based on either empirical or expert judgments of utility. Those kinds of judgments rely on a prior one that finds some goodness in being cured or healthy, that views utility as merely the means to some further end. That end is built on some valuation of quality or morality. Since we find expertise broadening the reliability of truth claims to a far large range of experiences, can we hope that it will also address qualitative or moral goodness claims in ways empiricism cannot and so assist us in the search for which truth is the means and goodness the end (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”)? Because it typifies a larger variety of experience than science, expertise can provide some guidance for achieving quality, but must fail to direct moral pursuits (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”).
First, allow me to discuss the very limited ways expertise can guide judgments of quality. I am thinking here of the kinds of codes of professional ethics disseminated for many occupations. Here as in questions of truth, we find some chicanery, for some of these codes carelessly mix issues of utility with those of quality or even morality. The International Federation of Accountants, for example, has a lengthy set of standards applicable to its membership that includes chapters on accuracy and accountability to clients. These standards mix behaviors fundamental to the utility of the profession– can one be an accountant without mastering mathematics– with standards of quality — can one be a competent accountant without being accountable to those who pay the bills? Some standards of quality seem fundamental to professional practice, and experts can delineate those very clearly. So that allows expertise to assist us in our search for qualitative goodness.
To illustrate the problem of claiming expertise in judging quality, compare the saucier to the art critic. The chef who has made a life study of preparing this kind of food has narrowed her focus appropriately to develop expertise: experiences alike enough to find core elements and different enough to draw these elements’ boundaries with rational attention. But how can an art critic develop expertise when every work of art is unique, producing what Kant termed “disinterested pleasure” in an aesthetic sense tickled by the very singular quality that produces it? It may well be that the “art expert” has demonstrated her abilities to price contemporary abstract oils, or has mastered the history of the medium she curates, or has perfected an understanding of an aesthetic theory against which to measure the worth of a work created in response to that theory (see “Three Portraits”). Expertise seems possible in these limited applications of aesthetics, but the kinds of questions John Ruskin asked about refinement of taste and the opinions of tastemakers to pass judgment on the aesthetic quality of art has joined so many other Victorian notions in history’s dumpster. Taste certainly can be molded –the cultural obsessions of the mass market demonstrate that daily — but whether such obsessions are good, bad, or indifferent seem largely a matter of private taste not subject to expertise.
And that is the way many persons prefer it. The interests of a consumerist and democratic society are decidedly egalitarian in questions of aesthetics and even more open in those involving a systematic end to which all choices are directed, so social instructions seem wide open to calling most any life goal a moral one (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). The construction of the virtual circle is deeply personal as postmodernists frame it, which also rather negates the possibility of expertise, at least on moral issues. No one else can be an expert in living my life, we are told, and so we are admonished in a thousand ways to resist the pressure of conformism so as to make our own rules for living (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”).
That view is neither consistently articulated nor consensually embraced for two very good reasons.
The first is the continued appeal of expertise in a technical society. Its existence is a remarkable testament to the universality of reasoning when carefully applied to experience. It is no accident that our postmodern culture that has us defiantly proclaiming our uniqueness also has us chasing after expertise as never before. We seek out yoga and fitness instructors, cooking coaches, test prep tutors, and graduate instructors to impart the best route to competence in their fields of expertise, naturally assuming in defiance of the culture that there is indeed a best way. That defiance is based upon a thought that jangles our cultural assumptions: the development of expertise, like that of science, is a profoundly correspondentist way of knowing and its valuation a profound verification of the possibility of correspondence knowledge. Expert knowledge is transferable only because the reasoning that breaks the experience into its components is universal, though the experience itself is only narrowed by repetition. Standards explicitly appeal to knowledge built upon the universal reasoning faculty that has prescribed a best way to approach some experience. And to acknowledge “best” in areas of skill or knowledge of quality is to tempt us to sanction an expert quest for “best” in moral experience. But just as empiricism can demonstrate its competencies beyond any reasoning doubt but must carry moral goals into its work from some source science cannot touch, so too must expertise fail to warrant moral truth. This weakness is disguised by the power of expertise to transfer quite arcane knowledge and skill through its processes. It is not transmissible as a simple truth from instructor to student but is developed by the latter’s rational approach to the experiences that develop it. We might consider the dog show judge to have internalized the lengthy list of standards for each breed as she evaluates the animal before her, but these same very specific standards allow the dog owner to appropriate at least a modicum of the judge’s expertise in choosing a pet. A criminal courtroom is similar. The voluminous number of standards relative to the admission of evidence and testimony is moderated by the judge, an expert in her field of law, but is administered by ordinary citizens on the jury applying the standards under the judge’s guidance. The training that police officers, educators, and other authorities undergo is a dilute version of the same effort. They are attempts to inculcate standards that build expertise, though as I have previously confessed, expertise is impossible in fields that address the variability of experiences derived from a combination of unique circumstance and free will. One may at best hope for competence built upon a hodgepodge of varied experience subject to the discipline of reason.
The second and more serious objection to postmodernism’s private moral schema is a very public and very old source of moral truths that wishes to be taken as a form of expertise capable of guiding public life. It is a source of constant tension in a permissive culture that religious authority continues to claim competence to pass judgment on public morality. We accept that all experts ought to be authorities. Can we also accept that authority is a kind of expertise?
That confusion makes it necessary to distinguish the two. It is true that the physician is considered both an authority and an expert. She derives authority from her expertise. So let us acknowledge that all experts ought to be considered authorities in their specialties. For purposes of clarity, I would prefer to tease out the sanction due to experts from the trust sought by authorities. Expertise asks for our rational agreement. The licensed electrician has proven competence, which his customer can examine. The tennis coach can easily demonstrate her expert skill. Authority operates on another principle. Rather than prove itself to the satisfaction of our reason, it seeks to have us willingly surrender reason and the agency it guides, instead asking us to give our trust. I can actively endorse the expert. I can only surrender trust to the authority. That means I consider myself unable to judge her, my trust substituting for my judgment. Trust is all the authority has to warrant her declarations. No parent can be an expert, but all parents are authorities to their children, at least until they reach adolescence when trust often fades. The muddy distinction between authority and expertise has been rather exploited by authorities to define morality for those who trust them and to justify it by reference to a claimed expertise that their experience can in no way justify.
Allow me to illustrate. Codes of ethics specify desirable experiences for professions based on appropriate reflection by those of extensive experience, so they seem successful in defining both the utilitarian and the qualitative standards for proficiency. And that is something. But some of these codes of ethics go beyond utility and quality to prescribe morality. I contend that none of those standards can be justified by expertise. All are the products of authority passing itself off as expertise. Student honor codes at universities set high moral standards as a condition of enrollment, yet one may question whether such codes are necessary for achieving expertise as a college student in anything like the way that ethical codes might apply to, say, the faculty at the same institution wherein success in the profession relies on a certain quality of behavior. For a professor to have an intimate relationship with a student might impair her judgment of the student’s performance and so reduce the quality of the professor’s work, but it is hard to see how such a relationship might hinder the student as a learner. Professional ethical codes are right to condemn such behavior on qualitative grounds alone for the professor, but any moral opprobrium must be based on entirely different considerations. It is a rational error to think any moral judgment warranted by the same expertise that justifies professional competence, and this has produced unsubstantiated claims by authority to guide moral choice. One of the traditional violations of authority that has prompted such intense postmodern resistance is authority’s claimed perogative to issue moral rules on that basis. It is true that authority can warrant moral goodness on its own terms. For most of human history, religious authority provided an alloy of truth and goodness claims appealing to public trust. But that trust cannot long survive the temptations of claiming an impossible moral expertise. What follows is not only skepticism about authority’s claims to expertise but also a suspension of trust and consequent reassertion of moral autonomy. This has been a century-long saga in western societies. It is unclear if the failure of expertise to provide moral guidance has damaged authority as much as authority’s catastrophic collapse has damaged expertise. Most persons in our age prefer an equality of moral outlooks rooted in the moral autonomy of the individual and view all authorities with a suspicion deeply rooted in history (see Premodern Authority“).
That being said, authority is in no danger of disappearing and its champions in no danger of surrendering their appeals to trust. Its chief advantage is the ease with which it is transferred or assumed, both in personal relationships and institutional ones. Also, everyone has experienced it because we were all children, so it is reborn with each generation. It offers clear advantages to institutional authority. Nothing is easier than granting a title: pastor, confessor, second undersecretary, eighth grade teacher, policeman (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). Persons asked to accept moral guidance are asked to give trust, perhaps in recognition not only of the title but also presumptively in the capability of the person in the organization using it. This effort peaked just as institutional authority suffered its final blows at the turn of the last century (see “The Victorian Rift“). The moral crisis that followed had been brewing for centuries as authorities’ pleas for trust clashed with modernism’s jealous retention of individual agency. Those pleas became authoritarian demands as institutions came under assault over the course of the twentieth century. Postmodernism’s project was to spotlight the hypocrisies that ensued. They regard the informative relationships that modernists have with authorities to be nearly as bad as the formative ones premodernists do. They regard both as surrender to what they see as a disguised imposition of power to maintain current inequalities. Their hostility sanctifies private moral agency, but provides no means for it to arrive at public consensus. The crying need for that is one aspect of the present crisis of postmodernism. It has been heated up in the twenty-first century. I hope it is clear that expertise cannot fill that need any more than authority can. What is new is the realization that the human sciences cannot fill it either and since they have always promised moral solutions they could never deliver, persons struggling in a moral vacuum return repeatedly to the expertise that human sciences once claimed. But so powerful is our need for moral consensus that even religious authority is repeatedly revived (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). Its adopting a patina of moral expertise also must fail to provide moral consensus.
The failures of authority, empiricism, and expertise to justify consensual moral goods continue to plague our public lives (see “Belief in the Public Square”). The clash between common good and private goods must inspire the search for some clear and universal moral arbiter that could do for our age what religious authority once did for early ones. When public policy confronts new ethical challenges such as those we now face in regard to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, panels of “experts” are assembled to write their recommendations. Unsurprisingly, they are dominated by clergy, natural and social scientists, and academic ethicists who respectively represent religious authority, empiricism and pseudo-science, and expertise. Also unsurprisingly, their recommendations are seldom implemented because their axioms of commitment are in deep tension and simply cannot be reconciled except by an appeal to the very pragmatism they are convened to remedy (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). I hope it is clear that one source of that contention is the perceived location of moral power. Does it lie in the moral agent, the culture, or some external authority? This issue touches on the expertise/authority confusion. A related dispute involves the kinds of preferences that are considered moral ones, as opposed to choices of utility or quality, and this one touches on the sterility of empiricism and expertise to define pubic goods. These axiomatic disagreements stem from the nature of moral ends as opposed to other kinds of goodness preferences.
What is sought and promised by the human sciences and expertise is a consensual cultural standard guaranteed by a verifiable hypothetical source. It derives from the greatest achievement of the modernism: the championing of individual natural freedom to determine and pursue one’s own versions of the good. These require that one first use her rational agency to identify hypothetical goods and then employ her preferential freedom to pursue them. This process structures preference in an if/then sentence in which the “if” clause identifies the good and the “then” clause identifies the preference. “If you want to become proficient at tennis, then you ought to take lessons.” In contemporary life, the “if” clause is almost always assumed to be dictated by desire (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). But when this completely acceptable process serves no larger ends or is not systematic, it cannot resolve or direct conflicting private goals, and since desire is intensely personal, it can never resolve public ones. It is probable that this approach is personally unsatisfying, though its possession is a function of human dignity (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). What is more certain is that it is socially disruptive, so persons find themselves appealing to external sources for individual direction and public comity. They seek categorical sources of moral preference that are not dependent on circumstance or defined by desire. In Western cultures in the age of the Internet, they have plenty of pretenders to choose from, many sporting the veneer of science, and particularly social science, and the prestige of expertise. These sources must fail to provide moral consensus because they too rely on hypothetical reasoning. Their practice must always be guided by a prior “if” clause, a prior preference. It is true that this might indicate a moral good, but it also might be as hypothetical as any private desire. One thing is sure: it lies outside the practice that pursues it and so cannot justify its own premises.
What we seek is a moral and categorical goal rather than a hypothetical one. It would steer private choice and public concord to a long-term, consensual goal, what might be called a permanent preference. Moral goals are not means to other ends but rather the ends for which all choosing is the means. Their long-term utility must also require that they be systematic and unchained from immediate circumstance, which means from hypotheticality (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends”).They finalize preference rather than direct it in the moment.
The hypothetical/categorical problem is relevant to issues of expertise. Pragmatists magnify the uniqueness of experience while experts minimize it.. Pragmatism tells us that each moment is so different from any other that its goals can only be set in that moment. Expertise tells us that some experiences are similar enough for us to conceptualize their essentials and manipulate them to our use. So in terms of hypothetical preference, it seems clear that expertise denies a fundamental premise of pragmatism. We can organize at least some experiences so as to produce predictable hypothetical goals of utility. When we sanction expertise, we are indicating an awareness of this truth, and such is our appetite for categorical goods that we seek expertise to provide articulated morality as it provides articulated truths to experience. But these will always be based on a contingent end that expertise cannot locate. Hypotheticals must be structured as if/then propositions. Take college honor codes. The unstated hypothetical is this: if you wish to be a practicing student at our university, then you ought to practice these standards we deem as desirable. Now while the standards they set for their faculty may be justified by expertise and so qualitatively useful to the profession itself, the student honor code must appeal to some moral standard beyond it: good citizenship or Christian duty or the authority of tradition. Neither empiricism nor expertise has found the means to convert their powerfully warranted truth claims into morally prescriptive behaviors without first specifying some hypothetical goal their truth claims cannot warrant. The doctor speaks confidently of what you should do to achieve health, assuming that you consider health a worthy end. The instructor counsels honesty, assuming you already agree to its desirability, but, of course, if you did, he would not need to remind you of it. What you perhaps should be reminded of is the danger of assuming that empiricism or expertise can transfer their powers of justification to moral goods that have to be warranted on entirely different grounds. None of these can provide moral ends. Yet something has to because moral oughts are ends that all hypothetical imperatives must serve. In an age of moral autonomy, none has risen to a consensual acceptance beyond a private utility writ large for public consumption.
For both historical and contemporary reasons, more admirable ends have eluded us as persons find themselves overawed by science and expertise in an atmosphere of moral permissiveness. Particularly over the course of the last century, empiricism and the expertise that practices it have seemed so clear-sighted in determining truth and utility that persons have resisted their blindness to issues of morality. Scientism, the conviction that the only reliable knowledge is empirically warranted, dominated empiricism well into the nineteenth century and produced the hugely destructive excesses of the human sciences in the twentieth. Its ambition has always been to prescribe the good as a categorical and empirical fact. That has proven a foolish goal, but it is understandable that such powerful means of justifying truth claims as science or at least expertise should also be thought capable of greater feats. The effort has eviscerated more traditional approaches, leaving hypothetical utility as a default private moral position but providing only cynicism and irony as the popular response to appeals for public consensus. Postmodernism is the meta-ethic exemplar of this lamentable process (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). It first counseled an anti-heroic resistance to popular cultures, but by the 1970’s, its values had so permeated Western society that postmodernism began arguing in favor of culture as the true maker of identity, though nothing about cultural mores is categorical or even systematic. So the current recipe for cultural consensus is a whisper in a hurricane of private desires (see “Cultural Consensus“). In the crosswinds, the outsized claims of pseudo-experts and pseudo-science are frequently indulged.
And also frequently resisted. The problem of soulless expertise, particularly in the human sciences, emerged during the middle years of the twentieth century. Epitomized by the cruel efficiency of the makers of the Holocaust, the “minor monsters” whom Hannah Arendt branded as the producers of “the banality of evil, these soulless “experts” in bureaucratic management were the subject of much distress. Their efforts reflected the mid-century fascination with psychology and sociology. The uneasiness they produced was rooted in the simplistic notion that our zealously guarded free will was a mask easily removed by omniscient science and ruthless expertise. This fear and the moral chaos that came from acting on it was largely responsible for the revival of Romanticism that characterized the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thankfully, both that Romantic enthusiasm and the fears that prompted it have faded from contemporary life. But we still face a moral vacuum in living it.
Only this cyclic effort to ground consensual moral goods can explain the deja vu of life since the turn of the twentieth century with its repetitive revivals of discredited attempts to locate consensual categorical warrants. The current revival of religious fundamentalism, at least in Western cultures, is typical. Religious authority frames categorical goods as divine commands whose morality must be assumed regardless of desire or circumstance. And this would provide cultural consensus if only persons would surrender their autonomy to its commandments. That is not likely to happen in the West because persons are entirely unwilling to grant trust to traditional authority. Its power is also fading in traditional cultures where modernism continues to erode religious orthodoxy (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?“).
On what grounds could one hope to be expert in living a moral life? Life seems far too precarious to promise even the possibility. When Aristotle developed his secular moral theory, virtue ethics, he advised his students to question those who had lived long and thoughtfully in their search for wisdom, which can only grow in the soil of reason categorically applied to individual preference (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer”). That opens a possible glimmer of hope. Could wisdom entail a unique kind of expertise transferable by instruction or by standard that allows us to flourish? Sadly, expertise is something no “life coach” can claim because experience is too variable and complex. Because we share a common rational sense in the midst of differing experience, I think we should do as Aristotle advised and tap the wisdom of earlier generations in ways we find rationally convincing even in an age of swift cultural change. That will not be enough. Though such an effort is head-and-shoulders above the clueless wanderings produced by a subjectivist ethic, it falls far short of expertise regardless of its essential reasonableness, and so its power lies more in tearing down the ambitions of system-builders and theoreticians than in advancing consensual public ends. An habitual competence is possible though. In the wider search for consensual moral goals, public moral systems that successfully appeal to individual moral autonomy seem only a remote possibility so long as persons operate out of conflicting moral axioms in Western societies. We might begin that process by changing course, which begins by changing minds. The first rule of getting out of holes is to stop digging (see “Toward a Public Moral System”).
I will conclude with a prediction about the future of expertise. Remember for a moment the tennis coach teaching the beginner how to serve or the clinician diagnosing an illness. Another way to view this is as a sequence of causal boxes. Each is like the box that preceded or followed it yet is different enough to be rationally separated and examined. Indeed it is this operation that produces the essence of expertise and limits its applicability to certain fields that are standardized within a limited range of divergence. Many professional fields famed for their expertise operate in this way. These cause-and-effect boxes operate on a narrow range of possible interpretation for the expert. The diagnostician thinks the patient has this set of symptoms. That leads to a narrowing of possible culprits. He asks pointed questions or investigates empirical results. Is there a fever? Are the lymph nodes swollen? Each box leads to a narrower set of options until only one diagnosis is left. All of this is made possible by the standards that frame the boxes: malaria has this set of symptoms and not others. This winnowing process and systematic logic leading to successful outcomes characterizes expertise and the professionals who demonstrate it in all knowledge fields. Unfortunately for them, it also characterizes computer operations. The more precise the standards, the easier for computers to apply them. The IBM supercomputer, Watson, is being programmed to perform medical diagnoses; it will soon demonstrate far greater expertise in this function than the doctors whose information fills its hard drive. In truth, the more clearly expertise can be shown in a profession, the easier it will be for computers to master it as they already have in, say, tax preparation. This will make an interesting dynamic over the next generation, for those most highly remunerated for their expertise will be among the first professionals to see their jobs eliminated. I suspect it will be some time before Watson attempts to supplant psychologists. Fortunately, the accountants, lawyers, doctors, and stockbrokers thus displaced will still be able to seek out them out as life coaches.