April 9, 2012

What Knowledge Can Philosophy Bring?

The NYT just published an article I wrote in defense of philosophical or conceptual knowledge as opposed to purely scientific or empirical knowledge. Here are the excerpts most relevant to business ethics: 

"Logically fallacious arguments can be rather sophisticated and persuasive. But they are nevertheless invalid and always will be. Exposing such errors is part of philosophy’s stock and trade. Thus as Socrates pointed out long ago, much of the knowledge gained by doing philosophy consists in realizing what is not the case. One such example is Thrasymachus’ claim that justice is best defined as the advantage of the stronger, namely, that which is in the competitive interest of the powerful. Socrates reduces this view to absurdity by showing that the wise need not compete with anyone."                   

Here is a relatively timeless philosophical truth.

"This is also why jurisprudence qualifies as an objective body of knowledge without needing to change its name to “judicial science,” as some universities now describe it. Though it is informed by empirical research into human nature and the general workings of society, it relies principally on the cogency of arguments from learned experts as measured by their logical validity and the truth value of their premises. If both of these criteria are present, then the arguments are sound. Hence, Supreme Court justices are not so much scientific as philosophical experts on the nature of justice. And that is not to say their expertise does not count as genuine knowledge. In the best cases, it rises to the loftier level of wisdom — the central objective of philosophy.


Though philosophy does sometimes employ thought experiments, these aren’t actually scientific, for they are conducted entirely in the imagination. For example, judges have imagined what might happen if, say, insider trading were made legal. And they have concluded that while it would lower regulatory costs and promote a degree of investor freedom, legalization would imperil the free market itself by undermining honest securities markets and eroding investor confidence. While this might appear to be an empirical question, it cannot be settled empirically without conducting the experiment, which is naturally beyond the reach of jurisprudence. Only legislatures could conduct the experiment by legalizing insider trading. And even then, one could not conduct it completely scientifically without a separate control-group society in which insider trading remained illegal for comparison. Regardless, judges would likely again forbid legalization essentially on compelling philosophical grounds.


Similarly in ethics, science cannot necessarily tell us what to value. Science has made significant progress in helping to understand human nature. Such research, if accurate, provides very real constraints to philosophical constructs on the nature of the good. Still, evidence of how most people happen to be does not necessarily tell us everything about how we should aspire to be. For how we should aspire to be is a conceptual question, namely, of how we ought to act, as opposed to an empirical question of how we do act. We might administer scientific polls to determine the degree to which people take themselves to be happy and what causes they might attribute to their own levels happiness. But it’s difficult to know if these self-reports are authoritative since many may not have coherent, consistent or accurate conceptions of happiness to begin with. We might even ask them if they find such and such ethical arguments convincing, namely, if happiness ought to be their only aim in life. But we don’t and shouldn’t take those results as sufficient to determine, say, the ethics standards of the American Medical Association, as those require philosophical analysis.


In sum, philosophy is not science. For it employs the rational tools of logical analysis and conceptual clarification in lieu of empirical measurement. And this approach, when carefully carried out, can yield knowledge at times more reliable and enduring than science, strictly speaking. For scientific measurement is in principle always subject to at least some degree of readjustment based on future observation. Yet sound philosophical argument achieves a measure of immortality."

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