INTRODUCTION

UTILITARIANISM AND THE NEW SOPHISTRY

 

In the opening passage of Plato's Gorgias Socrates declares his intention of learning from Gorgias himself `what the power of the man's craft is, and what it is that he advertises and teaches'. Gorgias for his part, is only too willing to tell him; he teaches, Gorgias says, the craft of speech, speech in particular about ethical matters, the things which are just and unjust in the wide Greek sense of those terms. He concedes, when he pressed, that he does not teach such bodies as juries about these matters, but merely persuades them that what he says is true. However, he also claims that as far as his own pupils are concerned, what he has to offer in exchange for their fees is knowledge and not mere conviction about the just and unjust, the fine and the shameful, and the good and the bad^R; it is not the case that he makes them only appear to know about such things as these.

Gorgias, then, claims to possess and teach moral expertise an expertise or craft which stands to matters of right and wrong as, for example, the expertise or craft of the doctor stands to matters of health and illness. If we regard that claim as defining part, at least, of the Sophistical, then we must also regard a large and influential segment of contemporary philosophical activity as Sophistic. I am referring to bioethics; by which I mean medical ethics as conceived and practiced by philosophers working in the utilitarian tradition.

This is what one bioethicist, John Harris, has said about the aim of medical ethics in relation to the moral dilemmas posed by medical practice:

. . . our interest in all these problems and dilemmas will be an interest in their resolution . . . Just as the proper business of medicine is not merely to understand the nature and causes of illness but to try to prevent or cure it, so the proper business of medical ethics is not merely to understand the nature of the moral problems raised by medical practice but to try to resolve them.

On this view, medical ethics must produce answers to the moral questions raised by the practice of medicine; not just any answers, but as we shall see the answers it is rational to give. The analogy Harris draws in the above passage between medicine on the one hand and medical ethics on the other is a revealing one; let us press it a little further.

The proper business of medicine, Harris says, is the prevention and cure of illness; to which we may add disease and injury as well. These are bad things, things we must eradicate as far as we are able. Something is wrong when someone is ill, disease or injured and it is the business of medicine to put it right. Not everyone is qualified to undertake that business; it requires specialized knowledge and training, the kinds of knowledge and training that schools of medicine exist to provide. People who have received a medical evaluation test - members of the medical and medical-related professions possess in consequence a unique or special competence in medical matters, one of which the rest of us can lay no claim. Medical practitioners and other health carers are the experts when it comes to preventing, treating or curing illness, disease, disability and injury.

What Harris analogy suggests, if carried far enough, is that similar points apply to the other business he mentions, that of medical ethics. The practice of medicine gives rise to moral dilemmas and disagreements; these, the analogy implies are like illness bad things, things we must do away with as far as we can. When people differ in their views about a moral issue, something is wrong and it is the task of medical ethics to put it right to settle the disagreement by resolving the issue in question. The business of medical ethics, on this account, is to answer the moral questions raised by medical practice. This business, the account implies, like that of medicine itself, is a specialized undertaking. 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. These people are not, of course, medical practitioners; they are medical ethicists, who are for the most part professional philosophers.

We saw above that the medical practitioner title to his special competence in medical matters derives from the fact that he has received the specialized education, which is a necessary condition competence in such matters. He possesses medical expertise because he has been educated or trained in medical science; and it is to his training that he would refer if he were asked why we should attach more weight to his pronouncements on medical matters than to those of anyone else. The question that must now be raised is this: from what is the philosopher supposed to derive his moral expertise? What is it that stands to his alleged special competence in moral matters? Why should we attach more weight to the pronouncements of philosophers on moral issues than to those of other people?

There appears to be only one answer to these questions. The special expertise in moral matters that philosophers possess, on the bioethical account, must be the product of an education in philosophy itself; it must be, because there is nothing else that distinguishes philosophers as a group from others. This answer, however, gives rise to a further question: how does an education in philosophy make one better at answering moral questions than someone who lacks such an education? What connection does the bioethical account draw between philosophical expertise on the other? The pursuit of this question will take us to the heart of bioethics; for the answer to it will bring to light the conception of rational justification in morality upon which the whole bioethical enterprise is founded. The answer can be summarized in the following way:

If moral questions are genuine questions there must be procedure for answering them; and that procedure must be a rational one. In the first instance, any answer that is given to such a question must be supported by reasons; as John Harris puts is, ^Q . . . if something . . . morally right or wrong, there must be some reasons why this is so^R. If, therefore, someone pronounces an action to be right (or wrong), he must be able to produce a reason for doing so, he must be able to say what, in his view, makes the action right (or wrong), and in this way provide a justification for the judgement he has made. This is not the end of the matter, however; for he must be able to show in addition that the reasons he has produced is an adequate one. ^QReasons^R to quote Harris again ^Q . . . can always be scrutinized for their adequacy^R. If the justification in question is to be truly rational, the reason to which it refers must be capable of withstanding such scrutiny; it must be acceptable from the standpoint of reasons or rationality.

The above account of bioethical position has proceeded in terms of reasons for moral judgements and decisions. It could have proceeded in terms of principles instead, in the following way: when someone says what makes an action right or wrong, he invokes explicitly or implicitly a moral principle; and if the moral justification thus given is to count a rational one, the principle he invokes must be one which it is rational to employ. Moral principles are no more exempt from rational scrutiny than the judgements and decisions they are used to support; however widely a principle is accepted and however fundamental it may be to our moral outlook, it remains subject to such scrutiny. If it does have a rational foundation, this must be uncovered and set forth; if it does not, the principle is unworthy of the place it holds in our moral life.

On the bioethical account, then, two conditions must be satisfied if a moral judgement or decision is to count as rationally justified. The first is that it must be supported by a reason (or which reference to a principle); the second is that the reason (or principle) in question must be one it is demonstrably rational to accept.

It is in relation to the second to these two conditions that the connection bioethicists perceive between expertise in philosophy and expertise in morality must be understood. These philosophers would acknowledge that most people can produce reasons of sorts for moral judgements and decision they make; but they would insist that those reasons must all be subjected to rational examination or analysis. This examination, they would add, must be conducted by someone who is qualified to do so; and the person who is best qualified, in their eyes, is the philosopher. He and only he is trained in a disciplined that takes nothing for granted, a discipline that persists in asking for justifications well beyond the point at which other disciplines have stopped. Philosophy is concerned with the isolation and justification of assumptions, including fundamental assumptions; and it is for those educated in that discipline, therefore bioethicists would say to identify the principles on which rational moral judgements and decisions must be based.

We have now arrived at the answer which bioethicists would give to the question posed above: how does an education in philosophy make one better at answering moral questions than someone who lacks such education? The answer is because it enables one to answer these questions in a rational way. It does so because it is philosophical enquiry, which must provide, sanction or underwrite the set of rational principles from which moral judgements should be deduced. The source of the philosopher special expertise in moral matters is his knowledge of these principles; it is this which gives his pronouncements upon moral issues an authority to which the pronouncements of other can lay no claim.

I have just given a brief account of the conception of rational moral justification which underlies the whole enterprise of bioethics; an enterprise which involves, I have said, the attribution to philosophers (at least by implication) of moral expertise. The account is not yet complete, and it must be admitted that it is something of a caricature though not, in my view, one which disorts beyond recognition the features of the original. If my understanding of their objectives is correct, bioethicist wish to present the moral conclusions for which they argue as the verdict of philosophy itself upon the issues they discuss.

The objection I wish to make to the bioethical enterprise is a fundamental one. It is that philosophy as such delivers no verdict upon moral issues; there is no unique set of moral principles which philosophy as such underwrites and no question, therefore, of using that set to uncover the answers, which philosophy gives to moral questions. When bioethicists deliver a verdict upon the moral issues raised by medical practice, it is their own verdict of philosophy itself; it is their voice we hear and not the voice of reason or rationality. To say this, it must be emphasized, is not to deny that, moral.