28 December 2010

J. J. C. Smart on the Moral Elite

J. J. C. Smart Let us think of the more moral members of society as a moral elite, much as the generality of scientists form a scientific elite. I hope I do not need to stress that such a moral elite must not be confused with a social or intellectual elite. Many people of no great education and of no prestigious social position certainly belong to my envisaged moral elite. If we judge this moral elite by its adherence to something like the Golden Rule of the New Testament, there is not all that much room for its improvement, except, as I suggested earlier, for the extension of our moral sympathies to nonhuman animals. This last implies of course an improvement in ethics, as opposed to morality, as I have defined it, unless we already understand 'Do as you would be done by' as applicable to whales, cattle, chickens, and so on, as it is to human beings. Of course fully to understand what this injunction comes to we need to take into account theories about the degree of consciousness that various creatures possess. I would suppose that the consciousness of whales is comparable to ours, that of chickens very different, and that of lizards very conjectural. When our philosophical and scientific knowledge of minds is greater we may be able to improve on our estimates. Of course even though they may not have the capacity for happiness and suffering that whales have, nevertheless I would suppose that chickens can suffer quite a lot, even though their consciousness should be very much a sort of daze, and this should be taken into account in our dealings with them. Perhaps in order to qualify for a moral elite one should become a heroic vegetarian like Peter Singer. I am myself not so heroic. I eat eggs though they may come from battery hens. Moreover at present I see no moral objection to eating the flesh of free range cattle, which seem to me to have a happy life which they would not have at all if they were not destined to be eaten. But this is a digression and I must return to my main theme.

(J. J. C. Smart, "Ethics and Science," Philosophy 56 [October 1981]: 449-65, at 453 [italics in original])