Recently Tyler Cowen publicized one of his periodic challenges to me:

I often joke with Bryan that the time has come for him to accept the consensus of what the experts in moral philosophy (or atonal music) tell us (him) to do.

One of the perks of attending the Social Philosophy and Policy conference was that I was able to ask philosophers the critical question: “You philosophers are definitely experts at something. But what is that something?”

Profs and grad students alike largely seemed to accept the following list of topics where members of their occupation actually have expertise:

  • Accurately describing the views of other philosophers, living and dead.
  • Checking arguments for logical validity/internal consistency.

No one claimed that the philosophy profession was good at figuring out true answers to philosophical questions. One even claimed the the primary product of philosophy is “broken arguments.”

Furthermore, no philosopher made an argument analogous to one economists often make: “Outsiders underestimate the degree of consensus because our debates focus on marginal controversies.” This would have been an awkward argument to make to my face, since the participants literally spanned the range from radical Kantianism (“Consequences are morally irrelevant”) to fanatical Singer-style utilitarianism (“There is no fundamental moral difference between killing and letting die”).

The upshot: Deferring to philosophers’ consensus is hardly the bitter pill (for me) that Tyler makes it out to be. Many philosophers believe that they personally have virtually all the answers. (Witnessing their disputes was an… experience). But few philosophers believe that their profession has more than a handful of answers.

As for atonal music, I’m still waiting to be invited to a conference for composers!