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Moral Experts

Author(s): Peter Singer


Source: Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Mar., 1972), pp. 115-117
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Committee
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3327906 .
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MORAL EXPERTS
By PETER

SINGER

has been influential in recent moral

following position
THE
philosophy: there is no such thing as moral expertise; in particular,
moral philosophers are not moral experts. Leading philosophers have
tended to say things like this:
It is silly, as well as presumptuous, for any one type of philosopher to
pose as the champion of virtue. And it is also one reason why many
people find moral philosophy an unsatisfactorysubject. For they mistakenly look to the moral philosopher for guidance. (A. J. Ayer, 'The
Analysis of Moral Judgments', in Philosophical
Essays.)
or like this:
It is no part of the professional business of moral philosophers to tell
people what they ought or ought not to do.... Moral philosophers, as
such, have no special information not available to the general public,
about what is right and what is wrong; nor have they any call to undertake
those hortatory functions which are so adequatelyperformed by clergymen, politicians, leader-writers... (C. D. Broad, EthicsandtheHistoryof
Philosophy.)
Assertions like these are common; arguments in support of them
less so. The role of the moral philosopher is not the role of the preacher,
we are told. But why not? The reason surely cannot be, as Broad seems
to suggest, that the preacher is doing the job 'so adequately'. It is
because those people who are regarded by the public as "moral leaders
of the community" have done so badly that 'morality', in the public
mind, has come to mean a system of prohibitions against certain forms of
sexual enjoyment.
Another possible reason for insisting that moral philosophers are not
moral experts is the idea that moral judgments are purely emotive, and
that reason has no part to play in their formation. Historically, this
theory may have been important in shaping the conception of moral
philosophy that we have today. Obviously, if anyone's moral views are
as good as anyone else's, there can be no moral experts. Such a crude
version of emotivism, however, is held by few philosophers now, if
indeed it was ever widely held. Even the views of C. L. Stevenson do
not imply that anyone's moral views are as good as anyone else's.
A more plausible argument against the possibility of moral expertise
is to be found in Ryle's essay 'On Forgetting the Difference between
Right and Wrong', which appeared in Essays in Moral Philosophy,edited
by A. Melden. Ryle's point is that knowing the difference between right
115

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116

ANALYSIS

and wrong involves caringabout it, so that it is not, in fact, reallya case
of knowing. One cannot, for instance, forget the differencebetween
right and wrong. One can only cease to care about it. Therefore,
according to Ryle, the honest man is not 'even a bit of an expert at
anything'(p. 157).
It is significantthat Ryle says that 'the honest man' is not an expert,
and laterhe says the same of 'the charitableman'. His conclusionwould
have had less initial plausibilityif he had said 'the morallygood man'.
Being honest and being charitableare often-though perhaps not as
often as Ryle seems to think-comparatively simple matters,which we
all can do, if we care about them. It is when, say, honesty clasheswith
charity(If a wealthy man overpays me, should I tell him, or give the
money to famine relief?) that there is need for thought and argument.
The morally good man must know how to resolve these conflicts of
values. Caringabout doing what is right is, of course, essential,but it
is not enough, as the numeroushistoricalexamplesof well-meaningbut
misguidedmen indicate.
Only if the moral code of one's society were perfectand undisputed,
both in general principlesand in their applicationto particularcases,
would therebe no need for the morallygood man to be a thinking man.
Then he could just live by the code, unreflectively. If, however, there is
reason to believe that one's society does not have perfectnorms, or if
there are no agreednorms on a whole range of issues, the morallygood
man must try to think out for himself the question of what he ought to
do. This 'thinkingout' is a difficulttask. It requires,first, information.
I may, for instance, be wondering whether it is right to eat meat. I
would have a better chance of reachingthe right decision, or at least, a
soundly based decision, if I knew a numberof facts about the capacities
of animalsfor suffering,and about the methodsof rearingand slaughtering animalsnow being used. I might also want to know about the effect
of a vegetariandiet on human health, and, consideringthe world food
shortage, whether more or less food would be producedby giving up
meat production. Once I have got evidence on these questions, I must
assess it and bring it together with whatever moral views I hold.
Depending on what method of moral reasoningI use, this may involve
a calculationof which course of action produces greaterhappinessand
less suffering;or it may meanan attemptto place myselfin the positions
of those affectedby my decision; or it may lead me to attemptto "weigh
up" conflictingdutiesand interests. Whatevermethod I employ, I must
be awareof the possibility that my own desire to eat meat may lead to
bias in my deliberations.
None of this procedureis easy-neither the gatheringof information,
nor the selection of what information is relevant, nor its combination
with a basic moral position, nor the elimination of bias. Someone

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MORAL EXPERTS

117

familiarwith moral concepts and with moral arguments,who has ample


time to gather information and think about it, may reasonably be
expected to reacha soundly based conclusionmore often than someone
who is unfamiliarwith moralconceptsandmoralargumentsandhaslittle
time. So moral expertisewould seem to be possible. The problem is
not so much to know 'the differencebetween right and wrong' as to
decide what is right and what wrong.
If moral expertiseis possible, have moral philosophersbeen right to
disclaim it? Is the ordinaryman just as likely to be expert in moral
mattersas the moral philosopher? On the basis of what has just been
said, it would seemthat the moralphilosopherdoes have some important
advantages over the ordinary man. First, his general training as a
philosopher should make him more than ordinarily competent in
argumentand in the detection of invalid inferences. Next, his specific
experiencein moral philosophy gives him an understandingof moral
concepts and of the logic of moral argument. The possibilityof serious
confusion arising if one engages in moral argument without a clear
understandingof the conceptsemployedhas been sufficientlyemphasised
in recentmoral philosophy and does not need to be demonstratedhere.
Clarityis not an end in itself, but it is an aid to sound argument,and the
need for clarityis somethingwhich moralphilosophershave recognised.
Finally, there is the simple fact that the moral philosopher can, if he
wants, think full-timeabout moralissues, while most other people have
some occupationto pursuewhich interfereswith such reflection. It may
sound silly to placemuchweight on this, but it is, I thinkvery important.
If we are to make moral judgments on some basis other than our
unreflectiveintuitions, we need time, both for collecting facts and for
thinking about them.
Moralphilosophershave, then, certainadvantageswhich could make
them, relativeto those who lack these advantages,expertsin mattersof
morals. Of course, to be moral experts,it would be necessaryfor moral
philosophers to do some fact-finding on whatever issue they were
considering. Given a readinessto tackle normativeissues, and to look
at the relevantfacts, it would be surprisingif moral philosopherswere
not, in general, better suited to arrive at the right, or soundly based,
moral conclusions than non-philosophers. Indeed, if this were not the
case, one might wonder whether moral philosophy was worthwhile.
University
College,Oxford

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