When I was employed by Glasgow University, I was sometimes invited to be a member of assorted government committees concerned with ethical issues. There were often rather oddly called 'expert committees' and I felt uncomfortable as a member because it was assumed that I was an authority on 'ethics'. This was simply a misunderstanding of the term 'ethics'.
The term 'ethics' is used in three different ways: as a synonym for 'morality' in general; to refer to the specific moral issues which arise in professional contexts; as an alternative name for that branch of philosophy called 'moral philosophy'. The ancient Scottish universities and Oxford and Cambridge have chairs of moral philosophy, but nowadays chairs with that subject-matter are likely to be called chairs of ethics.
The aim of 'ethics' in the third sense of moral philosophy is to generate theories about ethics or morality in the first and second senses. Ethics in the third sense of moral philosophy is an academic study and does not confer any authority on its practitioners over ordinary right and wrong or professional ethics.
If moral philosophers do not have any more moral authority than anyone else, does anyone have moral authority? There was a time when bishops and other clergy were thought to have moral authority, but events over the last decade suggest that they would be wise to pipe down. Apart from specific scandals, which suggest that some of the clergy have less moral authority than many ordinary people, there is a more substantial point; contemporary belief is that each of us is a moral authority.
This idea is encapsulated in the concept much stressed by Kant that we each have what he calls moral autonomy, that we all have the ability to be self-determining and self-governing, or more simply that we can decide for ourselves what is morally right or wrong. Individualism of this kind must of course be modified in practice (as Kant realised) because we are all morally autonomous. Hence we must accept rules which apply to all equally; we are members one of another.
How does this bear on 'expert' committees concerned with such matters as xenotransplantation (using animal organs for human transplantation) or 'presumed consent' for organ 'donation' (harvesting the organs of dying patients for transplant on the basis that they haven't signed a register saying that they don't consent), or – the current concern – the control of individual and social freedom to prevent the spread of COVID-19? Can there be moral experts who can advise on such committees, and if so, where does that leave the autonomy of the individual conscience?
Three of the main philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment – Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith – differ on many matters but they nevertheless agree on a general approach to moral decision-making. They agree that we must sort out the non-moral facts of the case and then moral judgement will kick in. Strictly speaking, what will kick in is not exactly 'judgement' but what these three philosophers would call a 'moral sentiment' or a feeling of approval or disapproval . If we go along with these philosophers, there would be no room for a moral expert. The expertise would be that of the scientists and doctors sorting out the facts and then the feelings of the rest of us equally would be engaged and express approval or disapproval.
A different approach was provided by another philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment – Thomas Reid. Reid held that the facts and values could not be separated, and that judgement was integral to the whole process. In a witty passage, he observed that if Hutcheson and Hume were correct, then a judge in a court of law should really be called a 'feeler'!
I think that Reid has the better of them here. The sorting of the facts even in a technical matter is not simply a value neutral activity. The question of which facts are the important ones involves value judgements. Fact and value make up a seamless garment. Scientists on the committees stressed certain scientific facts as contrasted with other scientific facts, and other types of relevant facts didn't get much of a mention. Government officials on the committees were even more strident in stressing facts which they thought would show we were world-beating.
I am long retired from such committees but nothing has changed. The Covid facts we are given highlight the numbers of new cases and the numbers of deaths. But there is no stress on the ages of those infected or their outcomes, nor do we hear much about the ages of those who have died or their underlying conditions. There is some but not nearly enough emphasis on the ruined education of young people, the ruined businesses, the blighted lives of the elderly and the many resultant deaths from other factors. But these too are facts.
What are the implications of taking this line and noting that the prioritising of certain facts above others involves ethical/value judgements? One implication is that the membership of the committees advising governments needs to be widened. We have been brainwashed into thinking the present crisis is to be resolved by 'following the science' even although there are sharp differences among the scientists. But in addition to the narrow focus of science there is room for economists, sociologists and others to point out the long-term implications of stressing some facts more than others. If we are to have 'expert' committees, the expertise must be balanced, if only because 'experts' are necessarily narrowly focused.
We are accustomed to the scene in which the the PM is flanked by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist, or the FM is supported by the Scottish scientific advisers. Perhaps other types of expertise or experience should be allowed to participate. The mathematical modellers from Imperial College are not always right.
Where does all this leave individual autonomy? Am I suggesting that we should hand over our right to make some moral decisions for ourselves to an expert, or expert committee? The short answer is 'yes', but this must immediately be qualified. It is only some moral questions which require an expert answer. Moreover, we are familiar with a comparable expertise in courts of law. Senior judges are trained and experienced in sifting through complexities, have a measure of detachment from their immediate feelings, and are able to see the wider implications for the public interest of decisions one way or the other. What I am suggesting is something similar in a technical sphere.
There is a continuum involved from quasi-legal expert committees such as the BMA or GMC medical committees on matters such as the withholding or withdrawing of treatment at the end of life – to the present powerful committees such as SAGE. This kind of broad expertise was perhaps not needed in the time of Adam Smith – although even he recognises it in the sphere of what he calls 'natural jurisprudence', or the development and discussion of the law as it applies to a changing world. Something analogous to natural jurisprudence is necessary to guide us through the moral complexities arising from the technologies of the modern age. But the membership of such committees needs to be widened and balanced.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow