So here’s a weird one for you. Philosophers are sometimes asked to take part in public discussions, and where they have a contribution to make, I think this is an entirely good thing. Philosophers recently gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry, and they said some helpful things about freedom and privacy. Philosophers are also sometimes asked to bring a little philosophical clarity to moral problems, and every now and then I get asked to talk about the ethics of climate change in the midst of nonphilosophers — I just gave a talk at the University of Leeds, in connection to the UK Energy Research Centre, in an interdisciplinary workshop about low carbon vehicles. (If you can stand it, the talk is here — it’s really a short argument for the claim that we know more about how stuff works than how we ought to use it, and that the questions we ask shape the answers we give. Not headline news.)
I find this kind of thing very rewarding (for me anyway), but there is always the thought that I’m moralizing, rather than doing moral philosophy. The idea is that I’m setting myself up as a moral expert, telling people what they ought to do, and that’s an instant turn off. I try to get around that by saying, at the start of such talks, that I’m not a moral expert at all, and in fact there’s evidence for the view that people who study ethics are no more ethical than anybody else (there’s some evidence for the thought that ethicists are actually in bad moral shape – Eric Schwitzgebel’s research is interesting stuff). I say you wouldn’t expect someone who teaches or writes about English literature to crank out good sonnets, so why think someone who studies moral philosophy knows better than you what you ought to do? The student of moral philosophy just knows a bit more than most about certain ethical concepts, some part of the history of ideas, and maybe like any philosopher they can follow the implications of views pretty keenly.
But on the train back, I wondered whether ethicists can get away with what looks increasingly like a cop out to me. Is there’s scope for a weird conflict of interest here? If you’re an organic chemist and asked to talk about some aspect of human fertility, you can simply state the facts you know, make judgements based on your expertise, and advise a panel accordingly. But if you’re asked by some people in the medical profession to say something about the moral philosophy around the abortion debate, do you have to declare the fact that you’re a consequentialist or a Kantian or a virtue ethicist? If you’re of some faith or other and tied to a pro-life view as a result, maybe there’s reason to think that you should mention that ahead of accepting an invitation to advise a panel on abortion. Shouldn’t an ethicist fess up ahead of time too? “Look, I’ll give you an overview of the positions, but I’m a convinced consequentialist, I think that’s the right view of morality, so this is going to be a really biased take on abortion. But I can’t help that. I think consequentialism is true.”
Are applied ethicists sometimes unable to give unbiased advice? Is there a problem for them that’s no problem for people like chemists?