Some Normative Principles Regarding Skills

One depends epistemically on another when one relies on her to deploy her epistemic skills to obtain knowledge in some domain and then supply it to one, where one lacks the epistemic skills to obtain this knowledge for oneself. One depends practically on another in some domain of activity

Dependence and the Value of Skills 69 with a material output when one lacks the practical skills to achieve this output for oneself, and so must rely on her to exercise her practical skills in the domain on one’s behalf, to create the output and then provide it to oneself. As already remarked, epistemic and practical dependence are strongly correlated, since they are interconnected: if I know nothing about how a car works, then I am badly placed to diagnose what is wrong with my car, and for the same reason badly placed, even if under some description I know what is wrong with it, to effect the repair myself.

Virtually all skills involve a mixture of the practical and the epistemic in their exercise. We shall say a skill is epistemic when its proprietary output is propositional knowledge,15 and that it is practical when the proprietary output of its exercise is a material object or outcome—a fully functioning car, or a beautiful mahogany cabinet, or a well-designed building meeting various desiderata, or a perfect sponge cake; for the skill of archery, hitting the target; for the skill of hunting, catching or killing the intended prey. But this differentiation in terms of type of output conceals the fact that the material output of a practical skill requires the deployment of knowledge—both that and how—along the way to achieving it; and for an epistemic skill, although the output is knowledge, in most cases practical skills must be deployed along the way to achieving it. For instance, a microbiologist must be able to collect suitable samples and prepare her slides before she can gain knowledge from observing them under the microscope. Moreover, many skills, if individuated intuitively, have both material outcomes and knowledge as potential proprietary outputs, and as such are practical-cum-epistemic skills. This is true of the complex skill mediating the ability to repair motor vehicles and of the complex skill underlying the ability of an expert cabinet maker.

Is there anything less than fully satisfactory about my situation when I have total epistemic and practical dependence on my mechanic vis-à-vis how things stand with my car and its potential repair? Would it be better for me if I had the epistemic-cum-practical skill to allow me to diagnose the fault and repair the car myself? This question turns on broader ones about the normative status of epistemic and practical dependence, and about the normative prudential value of skills, epistemic and practical. Should one seek to acquire epistemic and practical skills? Should one seek to acquire as many as possible? Which ones should one seek to acquire? Are there certain skills that each one of us has reason to seek to acquire?

In this chapter I make a preliminary foray into addressing these questions that are of urgent importance in our contemporary circumstances. To do so, I formulate some principles regarding skills, and then consider with respect to each whether a plausible case can be made defending it. Here are the principles, which are all variants on the thesis that one has some reason to acquire skills, which I abbreviate to RAS.

Unrestrictcd-RAS: For any skill (practical and/or epistemic) that one lacks and is able to acquire, each one of us has some reason (protanto reason) to acquire and sometimes exercise that skill; where this is not merely instrumental reason.

Certain-RAS: For each one of us, there is a certain set of skills one has or is able to acquire such that one has some reason, for each skill in the set, if one lacks it, to acquire and sometimes exercise it; and if one has it, to maintain and sometimes exercise it; where this is not merely instrumental reason.

Some-RAS: Each one of us has some reason to ensure that one has and sometimes exercises some skills—that one is not entirely skill-less; where this is not merely instrumental reason.

Core-RAS: There is a certain set of broad skill-types such that each one of us has some reason to ensure, if she is able, for every skill-type in the set, that she has and sometimes exercises a skill of that type; where this is not merely instrumental reason.

The reasons in play in these principles are pro tanto reasons, not all-things-considered reasons. In many cases the reason may be very weak, and in very many cases it will be overridden by other cumulatively stronger reasons. But the reason is overridden, not defeated, by these other reasons. It is still there—it just is not strong enough to mandate action all things considered.

The reasons in our principles are normative reasons—reasons for acting in a certain way. Following a distinguished leading tradition in contemporary ethics, we say that there is for agent A a normative reason for her to perform an action of a certain kind cp-ing, when cp-ing would have some property that counts in favor of performing it, for agent A.16 I will assume that properties of cp-ing that count in favor of performing it for A provide a prudential normative reason for A to cp. (If there are properties of some actions that provide a moral or perfective reason for A to perform them, they will not be considered in this discussion.) And I will assume, along with a mainstream tradition, that the property of cp-ing that confers such prudential normative reason is that for her. Well-being or welfare is the central concept in most contemporary theories of what a person has prudential reason to do—her well-being is the good it is rational for her to pursue from the point of view of her self-interest.17

So: A has a prudential normative reason to cp just if cp-ing will in some way contribute positively to A’s well-being. This principle tells us what needs to be shown, for each of our principles, to establish it: the acquiring of skills as specified in the principle must contribute positively to the agent’s well-being.

However, to vindicate our principles, acquiring and exercising skills as specified must not contribute only instrumentally to the agent’s well-being, due to further contingent causal consequences of possessing or exercising

Dependence and the Value of Skills 71 them; rather, their possession or exercise must in itself directly contribute to the agent’s well-being. However, I will understand this broadly, so that if possessing or exercising a skill constitutes a necessary background condition for the subject’s attaining an adequate level of well-being in her life, this counts as a direct, not instrumental reason to acquire and exercise that skill.

Normative reasons are different from motivating reasons. The latter are just that—reasons that motivate an agent to act and which then explain why she acted. An agent has a motivating reason to act if she has an inclination, a desire, to so act. There can exist a normative reason for A to

Different theories of well-being provide different accounts of what features of an action provide a PN-reason for A to perform it. The desirefulfillment theory of well-being ensures that normative reasons and motivating reasons coincide, since it says one has a PN-reason to perform an action just if one desires to do so. But other “objective” theories allow for the two sorts of reasons to come apart. However, to repeat, the proposed PN-reason-providing property of an action, the feature which contributes to well-being, had better be one that tends to motivate when the agent is aware of it, on pain of irrelevance to her plans and actions. In my defense later of the principles, I appeal only to uncontroversial ingredients of well-being that are undeniably motivating as features of prospective actions: pleasure and enjoyment, and happiness.18

Though, as just explained, motivating reasons (which category includes all desires) are not ipso facto normative reasons, getting what one wants generally tends to make for an improvement in one’s well-being—and so I will assume that, where an agent has the desire to acquire a skill, she has some normative reason to do so.19 The more difficult task is to show that an agent has some reason to acquire and exercise a skill, even when she lacks any inclination to do so. To say she does is to maintain that she is missing out on some good of human life, something that would contribute to her well-being, if she fails to acquire and exercise the skill—i.e., that exercising the skill would contribute directly to her well-being in a specific way not otherwise available.

The principles speak of one having reason to “acquire and sometimes exercise” a skill. One will have PN-reason to do so if this would contribute to one’s well-being. “To acquire a skill” is a success verb, whosesuccess is possession of the skill, which is required for its exercise. So which of these exactly is the bearer of PN-value,20 the contributor to the agent’s well-being—the process of skill acquisition, its upshot skill possession, or the skill’s exercise? Typically it will be the skill’s exercise rather than mere possession that contributes to the agent’s well-being; although in my argument for Some-RAS, I suggest possession in itself contributes to well-being. A significant limitation of my treatment here is that I assume that the process of acquisition in itself has no PN-value: it never contributes to the agent’s well-being. This assumption is certainly false, and I make it only as a simplification in a first treatment of complicated issues. Acquiring a skill always takes some effort, in many cases sustained over a long period. There may be instrumental PN-value in qualities of character, such as discipline and perseverance, that are reinforced by such efforts. Alternatively, the efforts and processes of acquisition may themselves be enjoyable, directly or in their concomitant side effects. For instance, someone may have PN-reason to take up watercolor painting because she is lonely and this involves enrolling in classes where she will meet other like-minded people. Such direct benefits and beneficial side effects of the process of skill acquisition are ignored in the present discussion.

A major simplifying assumption behind the formulation of my four principles is that one either has or lacks a given skill, since they do not speak to the issue of improvement of skill level. Thus I ignore the fact that many skills come in degrees—for instance, playing the piano. Taking account of this fact would mean modifying my principles to include this issue: given that I have a skill to some level, do I have some PN-reason to seek to improve my level of skill? I am confident that accommodating the fact that skills come in degrees would complicate my arguments, rather than requiring a different approach.21 Here, I assume that acquiring a skill means acquiring it to a middling standard of competent performance.

The principles speak of one having “some reason” to acquire a skill. So this reason may be very weak; it may be so weak as to be always overridden by other competing reasons. This is bound to be so in most cases of skills, because finite time and capacities mean one can only acquire a very few of the skills which one has the capacity in principle to acquire—even a skilled multilinguist can only learn a small fraction of all the world’s hundreds of different languages. In other cases, the reason may be a very strong one that will be overridden only in exceptional circumstances. Does this latitude mean that the principles are so weak as to be uninteresting? I do not think so. Necessarily, any human will acquire in her lifetime only a tiny fraction of the multitude of skills she in principle has the capacity to acquire. There is a question of principle as to whether she is missing out on something of potential value to her through this lack, some good which, if she possessed it, would contribute distinctively to

Dependence and the Value of Skills 73 her well-being. This is the issue my formulation and evaluation of the principles are focused on.

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