Do professionals make trustworthy expert authorities?

(Originally posted at

Using a professional as as an authority in an argument can require some assumptions. One such assumption is that members of a professional class place the common good over their self interest.

Without this assumption, we might question whether professionals’ advice to us is tainted in ways that that benefit them, say professionally or financially. Or the taint might be one hiding an ignorance about the subject they do not wish to disclose for fear of embarrassment.

Whether we can rightly assume that professionals act selflessly is the subject of Thomas Haskell’s historical essay “Professionalism versus Capitalism,” from the anthology he edited, The Authority of Experts. He discusses and compares the views of R.H. Tawney, Emile Durkheim, and C.S. Peirce on whether those in the professions act for the common good.

The soundness of this assumption is important for some arguments of authority, including those of journalism, particularly where the risk of an “expert” offering a self-serving or deceptive opinion is high. (A professional with the potential to act selfishly would cause us to question an authority. It does not, of course, render ipso facto the authority’s opinions unwarranted.)

How do we rate professionals today?

Haskell’s essay does not suggest how we might test this assumption today. The value of his essay is not in tellings us whether professionals act selflessly. Instead, the value of his essay lies in its indicating that different generations will think differently about the assumption.

The thinkers Haskell cites believe very different things about self-serving experts than do most of us today. The divergence suggests to me that as we evaluate appeals to professionals, we need to think about perceptions of authority. What might the arguer think of professionals? What would the people around the arguer think or have thought?

In asking these questions, we allow ourselves to act on the principle of charity: presenting an argument we want to critique in a favorable light. We also can think about our own answers to these questions and whether our evidence for them stands up.

Know your audience

The divergence also suggests to me that journalists should watch carefully the long-term trends in what is generally viewed as moral. They should watch trends in how people in professions are trained — what they’re told, the lenses through which they see the world that they’re taught to use.

Observing these trends can provide evidence in support of a view of the authority of professionals that is appropriate for our time.

Journalists, for their part, can use these observations to shape their arguments so that when they cite professionals in stories as authorities, they can be relatively sure that their use of professionals is attuned to how their audience is likely to judge the professionals.

On a side note, Haskell’s discussion of expert authority might offer lessons to some scholars of fallacies and argumentation. His essay suggests that the scholars who say arguments to authority are not per se fallacious are correct.

To reject these appeals out of hand rejects even the possibility that in some time or place the evidence we have about authorities leads us to conclude they are trustworthy. Before rejecting an appeal to authority outright, we need some reason to think the zeitgeist cautions us from trusting authorities to some degree.

This is the view taken by, for example, James Hyslop in Logic and Argument — and, I’m sure, many other argumentation philosophers I haven’t read yet.

(It could also be the case, though, that the experts are never right and also never trustworthy, in which case a search for the good expert might be like waiting for Godot.)

(It could also also be the case that this question needs to be settled discipline by discipline. Witness the seeming angelic qualities of computer scientists involved in the open source software movement.)


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s