Yesterday, for fun, I posted a clip of the philosopher Jonathan Dancy on the Late Late Show. His interview raises an interesting and serious question. Asked whether philosophers should dispense moral advice, Dancy says: No. I would agree with that, for reasons stated below. But Dancy goes further and suggests that philosophers shouldn’t address substantive moral issues at all. He implies that people’s ethical judgments are already in pretty good shape. A philosopher’s job is to understand what kind of thing an ethical judgment is. In other words, moral philosophy is meta-ethics.
That is a controversial claim. John Rawls, Peter Singer, Robert Nozick, Judith Jarvis Thomson, and many other modern philosophers have advanced and defended challenging theses about morality. Since the great renaissance of ethics in the English-speaking world (1965-1975), its ambitions have diminished, I think, and a distinction has arisen between ethics (which is very “meta”) and applied ethics (which is mostly about a given topic area, and not very philosophical). This split seems a harmful development, because the best moral philosophy is methodologically innovative and challenging and also addresses real issues.
Why shouldn’t philosophers dispense advice? Because what one needs to advise people well is not only correct general views (which, in any case, many laypeople hold), but also good motivations, reliability and attention, fine interpretative skills, knowledge of the topic, judgment born of experience, and communication ability (meaning not only clarity but also tact). There is no reason to think that members of your local philosophy department are above average on all these dimensions.
But correct general views are valuable, and philosophers offer proposals that enrich other people’s moral thinking. You wouldn’t ask John Rawls to run a governmental program or even to advise on specific policies, but your thinking about policies may be better because you have read Rawls. It so happens that he held some interesting ideas about meta-ethics, but those were merely complementary to his core views, which were substantive.
I’m afraid I detect a general withdrawal from offering and defending moral positions in the academy. Humanists like to “problematize” instead of proposing answers. Social scientists are heavily positivist, regarding facts as given and values as arbitrary and subjective (thus not part of their work). If moral philosophers begin to consider the offering of moral positions as beyond their professional competence, there’s virtually no one left to do it.