Hostname: page-component-f7d5f74f5-cz72t Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-10-04T00:21:51.628Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Objectivity and Moral Expertise*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Terrance C. McConnell*
University of North Carolina at Greensboro


Recently a well-known magazine published an article entitled ‘Moral Specialist.’ This article recounts the activities of Russell McIntyre, described by the authors as a theologian and philosopher who specializes in bioethics. McIntyre is routinely consulted by physicians for help in solving ethical problems. He is asked for moral advice on such matters as abortion, euthanasia, and sterilization for teenagers. McIntyre even wears an electronic ‘beeper’ so that when untimely moral quandaries arise he can easily be reached. McIntyre says that ultimately such moral decisions should be made by the people involved — the physician, the patient, and the family. However, he claims that there are still many gray areas in bioethics ‘where it is best to call in an expert for consultation.’

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1984

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


* For their suggestions and comments on an earlier version of this paper, I would like to thank Norman Dahl, Barry Hoffmaster, Gary Iseminger, Arnold Levison, Michael Root, Chris Swoyer, Laurence Thomas, and a referee for the Canadian Journal of Philosophy.

1 Newsweek, January 8, 1979, 67.

2 For a recent discussion of this practice, see Anne Bauer, C.Philosophers in Hospitals: Are They Welcome on the Wards?', The New Physician, March 1982, 20-4.Google ScholarPubMed See also, the New York Times, March 19, 1982.

3 See, for example, Szabados, BelaOn “Moral Expertise”,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 8 (1978) 119-20CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Burch, Robert W.Are There Moral Experts7', The Monist, 58 (1974) 646-58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 In saying this I do not beg any questions about the connection between obligation and motivation. I allude here to the dispute between intemalists and externalists described by Frankena, William K.Obligation and Motivation in Recent Moral Philosophy,’ in Melden, A.l. ed., Essays in Moral Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press 1958). 4081.Google Scholar Intemalists hold that there is a necessary connection between obligation and motivation; if a person believes that he ought to do an act, he will be motivated to some degree to do it. Externalists deny that there is such a connection between obligation and motivation; a person may believe that he has an obligation and have no motivation to perform the required act. Even the intemalist, though, need not say that one who knows what is right will always do what is right. Having some motivation to do what is right is consistent with failing to do it.

5 Contrary to what I have maintained, there is one reason for thinking that having a good moral character is a necessary condition for being a moral expert. In order to know that one ought not do a certain act in a particular situation, one may have to possess a degree of moral sensitivity that only a good person has. It might be claimed, for example, that only a good person would be sensitive enough to know that a certain remark would be taken by others as insulting or offensive. Even if there is such a connection between moral character and knowledge, however, this does not show that knowledge of general moral principles requires a morally good character. And it is knowledge of general moral principles, I shall suggest later, that is necessary in order for one to be a moral expert.

6 Peter Singer, ‘Moral Experts,’ Analysis, 32 (1972) 115. Note that I say Singer seems to endorse the claim that objectivity is a necessary condition for the possibility of experts. Professor Singer has indicated to me in correspondence that he does not accept such a strong claim, and in fact he tends to agree with what I say about this issue in section VII.

7 The point that in moral matters no one is a layman is made, in a different context, in Plato's Protagoras 326e-327e.

8 The considerations that I cite here to show that moral philosophers might reasonably be regarded as moral experts have been mentioned by others. See Peter Singer, 117 and Eggerman, Richard W.Moral Philosophers and Moral Advisers,’ Metaphilosophy, 10 (1979) 161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Eggerman, however, unlike Singer, denies that there is such a thing as expert moral knowledge (164).

9 I suggested earlier that there is a grain of truth in the claim that ethics is more difficult than other areas believed to be objective. Since in order to know what one ought to do in a particular situation one must have knowledge both of general moral principles and of the facts to which those principles are to be applied, ethical knowledge is often difficult to attain.

10 A similar disanalogy between the positions of scientists and judges is pointed out by Sartorius, Rolf E. Individual Conduct and Social Norms (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company 1975), 185.Google Scholar

11 Some of the things that I say here are similar to what Kant says in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Beck, L.W. (185: BobbsMerrill l959), 20-2Google Scholar; Prussian Academy Edition, 403-5. Kant claims that the ordinary man does not need abstract philosophy in order to know the difference between right and wrong. However, since the inclinations tempt people to act contrary to their moral principles, philosophy is needed ‘to secure admission and permanence’ to these precepts.

12 This point is made by many authors. See, for example, Ross, W.D. The Right and the Good (185: Clarendon Press 1930), 30-2, and Falk, W.D.Moral Perplexity,’ Ethics, 66 (1956) 124-5.Google Scholar

13 Bambrough, RenfordPlato's Political Analogies,’ in Laslett, Peter; ed., Philosophy, Politics, and Society (Oxford:: Basil Blackwell 1956), Vol. I, 110.Google Scholar Others have echoed this same objection. See, for example, Beardsmore, R.W. Moral Reasoning (New York: Schocken Books 1969), 88-9Google Scholar, and D.Z.. Phillips and Mounce, H.O. Moral Practices (London: Routledge and Keagen Paul 1969) 108.Google Scholar Béla Szabados, 122-4, deals with this objection. My response to this objection differs from that of Szabados, however. I should also point out that Bambrough's views on this topic have changed. See, for example, his Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press 1979).

14 This point was suggested to me by Norman Dahl.

15 In many cases, of course, it will be appropriate and desirable to enlist the help of moral experts and experts from other fields. In formulating legislation dealing with euthanasia, for example, moral and medical experts might be needed.

16 I am assuming that these people were being sincere. If they were being sophistical and manipulating the subcommittee for political purposes, then their defect is moral rather than intellectual.

17 Nielsen, KaiOn Being Morally Authoritative,’ Mind, 89 (1980) 425.Google Scholar This same objection is discussed by Szabados, 124-6.

18 This familiar account of moral autonomy is sketched by Wolff, Robert Paul In Defense of Anarchism (New York: Harper & Row 1970), 1218.Google Scholar

19 Some of the points made in this and the previous paragraph are elaborations of some remarks of Szabados, 125-6. My assertion that there is a requirement to solicit the advice of a moral expert, however, is much stronger than the claim endorsed by Szabados.

20 In the context of Socratic ethics, a point similar to this is discussed by Irwin, Terence Plato's Moral Theory (New York: Clarendon Press 1977), 90-1Google Scholar and 97.

21 However, Szabados, 127, claims that each person is required to try to become a moral expert.

22 Aiken, Henry D. Reason and Conduct (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1962), 143Google Scholar, expresses the point this way: ‘But in morals such situations can hardly arise. For just as no one can live by another's principles, so no one can be expected to conform his judgment and his will to certain allegedly objective principles which he has not in conscience made absolutely his own.'

23 Lemmon, E.J.Moral Dilemmas,’ The Philosophical Review, 71 (1962) 156CrossRefGoogle Scholar