Concord in Ethics and Bioethics

Over at Pea Soup, Ralph Wedgwood makes an interesting claim:

I suspect that on several issues that are the focus of fierce moral controversies today – such as homosexuality and the death penalty – there is significantly less disagreement among contemporary philosophers than in the population as a whole. Indeed, I tentatively suggest, the historical record indicates that philosophers have been pushed towards the liberal view on these issues by some fundamental features of philosophy itself.

To what extent is this true?  Let’s take the points about homosexuality and the death penalty first.

In these cases, it seems likely that people in the Academy are more likely to have the relevant scientific data accessible.  Questions about the justice of the death penalty are likely to be informed by information about miscarriages of justice, deterrence, and so on.  In relation to homosexuality, something comparable applies: we know, thanks to what various branches of the natural sciences have told us, that being gay might be abnormal in a given species, but it’s not pathological.  Indeed, there seems to be a number of mechanisms by which homosexuality could confer evolutionary benefits (though obviously less so for the individual homosexual).  On the other hand, there’s a degree of chicken-and-eggness here; research into sexual mores, or criminal justice, or anything else, takes place within a cultural context; so while there’ s possibly more of the hang’em-and-flog’em brigade outside of the academy, we’d still have to explain why academics are sufficiently liberal to carry out the kind of research that feeds liberal attitudes to begin with.

What about debates outside of these two fields?  Well, there is a sense, I suspect, that professional philosophers are much less easily spooked by things than non-philosophers.  I’ve known a number of philosophers over the years who’d describe themselves as “conservative” but very few who’d be recognised as such by “conservatives” as the term is understood in the wider political culture.  Conservatism among moral philosophers tends to reflect an attitude of, “Hang on: not so fast…” rather than “Never, never, never”.  I’d count even people like Michael Sandel in this group; he’s very sceptical of a lot of biotech, but I don’t see a categorical rejection there, even though he might need a lot of convincing.  (Of course, there is the odd exception; but, as medieval jurists knew, the exception proves the rule, because without a rule there could be no exception.)  Thus, for example, when it comes to debates about abortion or embryo research, the philosophically mainstream question concerns the point at which, and the reason why, the embryo becomes morally important enough to deserve serious protection.  There’s comparatively little in defence of the line that all bets are off from conception onwards.  Ditto with euthanasia or assisted suicide: the reasons to keep it illegal are overwhelmingly presented in terms of protection of the vulnerable; the supposition that such actions are wrong period gets little attention.

Part of this might be attributable to philosophy departments hiring their own; I suppose you could get slightly tinfoil hat-ish and complain about pro-lifers being deliberately sidelined.  But that’s implausible; and the main reason for that is that there’s enough bloggers and independent scholars popping up about the place (and sometimes at conferences) to be able to say that, in general, the reason why there’re few hardcore conservative pros is that their arguments – when there are any – are terrible.  The same applies to students: over the years, I’ve had a number of students who started the year with one set of attitudes, but, as their work progressed and became more sophisticated, they’ve become much more nuanced.  I’m reluctant to think that they’re just going through the motions for the sake of a high mark and that their core beliefs are untouched, though: I really do think that, as they’ve become more sophisticated, they’ve moderated.

So this speaks to Wedgwood’s second claim: there’s something about the nature of the philosophical method that encourages a gentle drift towards a common pole.  But it’s possible, too, that what’s true about philosophy is true of other disciplines.  After all, you only get good at anything by subjecting intuitions, your own or others’, to scrutiny; and while there’s clearly a psychological incentive to keep your intuitions safe for as long as possible – and an intellectual reason to do so: they provide a sounding-board for new stuff – the willingness to sacrifice the most sacred of sacred cows is a sign of academic virtue.

Why does this make us liberal, though?  Well, a habit of sacrificing sacred cows means that you’re going to end up at least reluctant to say with utter certainty that this is obligatory and that that is forbidden.  But, that being the case, you end up in a position in which the balance is in favour of allowing people to act as they please.  You become laissez faire by default in respect of personal morality.  In matters of public morality, things work out the other way: granted that most people have an intuition in favour of first-person priority, the recognition that that’s only an intuition makes you more receptive to the moral gravity of others.

Can I substantiate this – admittedly vague – hypothesis?  Not to any publishable standard.  But I think it’s right.  For example, I happened to hear a bit of The Moral Maze last Wednesday; it’s normally a programme I avoid, because the concentrated stupidity burns, burns, burns.  But I happened to catch Janet Radcliffe-Richards being interviewed; and what was striking was her responses to the interviewers.  Their questions were variations on a theme of Why won’t you admit that this is very bad and should be banned? She wasn’t refusing to answer, but she did have to keep making essentially the same point: I don’t know what you mean by that question, and I suspect neither do you.

And that seems to be the clincher: philosophers are not averse in principle to saying that something is forbidden or obligatory; on occasion, we’ll risk our necks.  But two-and-a-half-thousand years of scepticism and hyperbolic doubt have an impact; we tend to demand convincing reasons and arguments before we’ll rally to any flag at all.  And that makes us quite liberal by default.

  • Trish

    I believe, with your cow example, that it should be “udder” certainty.

    Sorry – I couldn’t resist, and yes, I came out of lurking simply to play out a bad pun.

  • Keith Tayler

    Not sure labels like “conservative” and “liberal” make much sense these days. There are many so-called ‘professional philosophers’ that would claim to be liberal but hold some pretty antiquated ideas about technology and the future of humankind. This does not make them conservative in the “Hang on: not so fast…” or the “Never, never, never” sense, more the “Hang on – must we keep going over this nonsense every centenary.” I do not see many sacred cows being sacrificed these days. Philosophy has slipped back into its old comfortable ways of doing philosophy. Indeed, even if we do assume that applied ethics is grounded upon a liberal tradition, I am inclined to ask the question Onora O’Neill asks – “Could any of us demonstrate that contemporary applied ethics is more than the scholasticism of a liberal tradition? (‘Abstraction, Idealization and the Ideology of Ethics’, in Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Problems, p.65) All very establishment and professional.