Expertise

Lecture 7.  September 11 and 17.

Afterthoughts.  In Plato’s Socratic dialogues a repeating theme is expertise, especially when the issue at hand is how a state (polis) should be governed.  In motivating his idea of rule by Guardians, Plato has Socrates ask his students whom they would consult for wisdom about health (physicians) or cookery (chefs), and then suggests that just as there are experts in health and cookery, there must be experts in government.  And, just as we follow the wisdom of physicians and chefs, we should follow — be governed by — the wisdom of the Guardians he so fully describes in the Republic.

For now, let’s put aside the question of whether or not there can be expertise in governing and look at the notion of expertise itself, because Socrates and Plato raise an important question about expertise and rational decision making more generally.  Obviously, one way to define expertise and to determine who is an expert is to look at the outcomes of a person’s decisions and actions.  An expert doctor is one who consistently makes the right diagnosis and comes up with the right treatment; an expert chef is one who consistently cooks good food.  But recall that Socrates and Plato (and Western thought in general) demand more, that intuition (right action) is not real expertise; the true expert must be able to reflect upon, and thus give a theoretical account of his or her decisions.  This argument suggests that the correctness, the rationality, of a decision lies not (or not entirely) in its outcome, but in the process of making the decision.

Let me give an example of how this separation of outcome (intuition) and process (theory) has influenced psychological studies of decision making in Socrates’ field of concern, moral decision making.  Perhaps the most influential psychologist of moral development in the 20th century was Lawrence Kohlberg.  He put to his participants a series of moral conundrums (like the trolley problem we discussed in class, though he did not use it in his research), and then asked them what they would do in such a case and to provide an explanation for their chosen action.  His procedure was very Socratic — elicit an intuition about what’s right and wrong in a specific case and then require that the decision be justified.

Based on his findings, Kohlberg claimed that children and adolescents progress through a series of stages of increasingly adequate moral judgment.  Kohlberg’s proposal was based on many considerations (such as being influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development), but what’s most important for us now is that he defined his stages not with regard to the moral choice made but with regard to the process by which it was made.  In Kohlberg’s account of morality, the developmental level of expertise of a decision-maker was determined not by the outcome of the decision but by an evaluation of how the decision was reached.  Viewed through the lens of the history of psychology, Kohlberg was following the path blazed by Socrates and Plato.

Forethoughts.  The tension between action and explanation is one that will haunt the rest of the course especially when we come to consider psychology’s influence on society.  Like most of us, Socrates thought that there is an explanation, or account, of an action that justifies it rationally.  Moreover, he implicitly assumed that this justification was also a causal explanation of why the action was taken, even if the actor was not aware of it.  If this is the case, then scientific psychologists could study how people make decisions, discover what the processes of good decision making are, and then distill them into methods and policies employable by the state.  Suppose, on the other hand, that good decision making is an intuitive process that cannot be turned into a rational theory stable as a series of propositions; for example, the best explanation of decision making might be neuroscientific, not rational, ones.  Are voters rational (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_the_Rational_Voter)? Should politicians learn psychology, economics, or neuroscience (http://www.neuroeconomics.org/)?

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