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Eliminating the Experts

Jane Singleton reviews The Elimination of Morality: Reflections on Utilitarianism and Bioethics by Anne Maclean.

Almost weekly in the media we are faced with moral dilemmas, often of the most harrowing nature. The latest flurry of examples concern ethical dilemmas at the beginning of life. Ought we to use eggs from aborted fetuses for infertility treatment? If allowed, this would have the rather startling implication that a child born as a result of such treatment would have had a biological mother who had never lived. Is it morally acceptable for a black woman to be carrying a white fetus? Is it right to allow 59 year old women the opportunity of motherhood via infertility treatment? In Germany an eighteen year old who was pronounced clinically dead after a car accident, was kept ‘alive’ in order to give the 15 week fetus, that she was carrying, the chance of life. Was this decision morally acceptable?

Faced with problems like this, we might wonder if there are ‘moral experts’ who can help us solve these dilemmas, just as we consult experts to assist us with car problems, legal problems or financial problems. Perhaps these moral experts, if they exist, are none other than moral philosophers. Anne Maclean doesn’t think so. In this book she denies that “there exists a class of people who, if not uniquely competent to carry it out, are at least especially competent to do so; a class of people who possess special expertise in moral matters… they are medical ethicists, who are for the most part professional philosophers” (p.2).

She is not claiming that all moral philosophers working in this area of moral debate view themselves as experts, but many of them do. She has in mind those who work in the field of bioethics, by which she means, “medical ethics as conceived and practised by philosophers working in the utilitarian tradition” (p.1). Thus her targets are those who accept some version of the claim that “the moral value of an action… depends entirely upon the state of affairs it promotes or produces – upon its outcome” (p.10). What they take to be good outcomes might vary from maximising happiness to maximising preference satisfaction but they are all agreed that outcomes are the determinants of what is right and what is wrong. If your action has a good outcome it is right. If it has a bad outcome it is wrong.

Maclean then proceeds to mount a detailed attack on the work of John Harris, Peter Singer, James Rachels and Richard Hare. Viewed as a critique of The Value of Life and “The Survival Lottery”, The Expanding Circle, The End of Life and Moral Thinking written, respectively, by these authors, the book makes many incisive points against a utilitarian account. For example, Maclean is surely correct when she points to the impoverished view of action held by Utilitarians, who treat human actions as if they were just like any other type of event. For the Utilitarians, to act is just “to effect a change in the world” (p.85) and this leaves completely out of the account the nature of the person involved and the particular motives that he might have. To understand the morality of actions we need to consider the act as originating from a particular agent with a particular motive. To take one of Maclean’s examples (p.90), Jack visiting his lonely and sick grandmother just to cheer her up and Jill visiting her to cheer her up in order that she might be included in the grandmother’s will might both ‘effect a change’ in the sense of cheering her up but they have performed different actions.

These criticisms of Utilitarians are fair enough, but Maclean is surely going too far when she claims that they are all suggesting that theirs is the only way to approach moral problems and that rationality demands a Utilitarian approach. I would accept that Richard Hare does argue for this position since he considers that the only valid method of moral reasoning is to consider the meaning of words such as ‘ought’ and ‘must’. If we are to use these words correctly, he says, we must reason in the way he describes and he argues that this reasoning leads to Utilitarian conclusions. This, then, for Hare is the only rational way to proceed because it can be derived from the meaning of the words that we are using. Maclean is therefore correct in her charge when it relates to Hare’s work and she produces some convincing criticisms of his claim to have described moral thinking on this model. However another Utilitarian, Peter Singer, states quite clearly in his book Practical Ethics that there are other ways than his to approach moral issues. What he is doing is adopting one view and considering its implications in particular cases. I do not think that he would claim to be a moral expert but he has illustrated the implications of adopting a Principle of equal consideration of interests to a wide variety of ethical problems. He has clarified the consequences of applying this general theory to particular issues.

Now this task is the one that Maclean thinks it is appropriate for Moral Philosophers to perform. She writes in the last chapter of the book that, “the object of the examination with which we are concerned, it might be said, is primarily one of clarification: the clarification of issues, types of issue, assumptions, arguments and concepts” (p.203). This seems to me to be the task that Singer has set himself. He is adopting the ethical principle of equal consideration of interests but he wouldn’t call us irrational if we chose a different principle instead.

Maclean makes a further claim about the task that is appropriate for moral philosophy which is interesting in the light of some of her criticisms of Utilitarianism. She claims that the task for medical ethics is “one of ethical recovery. A framework needs to be put in place for the discussion of the substantive moral issues raised by medical practice.” (p.201). The suggestion here appears to be that we approach the sort of dilemma mentioned at the beginning of this article with a general framework which we then apply to the particular case to help us to determine a view about the morality of the problem in question. However, this is precisely the procedure which she criticises earlier in the book, in Chapter 2. One of her arguments against the bioethicists was that they assume that we need to approach particular cases with a general theory. For example, Harris assumes that, “we must know what makes for a valuable life in general… before we can know whether or not this or that life is valuable” (p.18).

This leaves us with one of the central problems of morality. Do we examine particular cases, like the ones with which we started, and in some sense just see if they are morally right or wrong? Are we trying to develop a moral sensitivity to particular moral issues? Alternatively, do we need a general theory to approach the particular cases? Maclean’s book equivocates in the answer it gives to this important question.

© Dr. Jane Singleton 1994

The Elimination of Morality: Reflections on Utilitarianism and Bioethics, by Anne Maclean, is published by Routledge and costs £35.00 for the hardback or £10.99 for the paperback.

Jane Singleton is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire

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