Does being an expert on something make you an expert on the ethics of that thing?

At a recent talk at the University of Kent, IVF pioneer Robert Winston suggested that the “toxic mixture” of enthusiasm and patient desperation in relation to fertility treatments might lead to a society where rich people can pay for enhancements, with the consequence that we “end up with a society where some people may actually have something that might threaten our humanity”.

That sounds really bad. And if someone who knows what he or she is talking about warns us about something bad, we should listen. So, does Winston know what he’s talking about? Phillippa Taylor of the Christian Medical Fellowship clearly thinks so. She told the Daily Mail: “If Lord Winston is saying this, I hope that people take notice. He is someone who is an expert in the area but also someone who sees the bigger picture.”

There are interesting and important medical ethical questions raised by fertility treatments. But Taylor’s comments raise an important epistemological question that gets to the issue of whether we should be listening to Winston here. The question is this:

(Q) Does being an expert on x make you an expert on the ethics of x?

Taylor’s comments seem to suggest that the answer to (Q) is ‘yes’. Yet, it’s not clear that that’s the most plausible answer.

We can start with some examples. An expert contract killer is an expert on how to kill people. But she won’t thereby be an expert on whether or under what conditions we should (as in: morally ought to) kill people. That is, while an expert on killing, she’s not necessarily and expert on the ethics of killing.

It might be objected that this at most goes to show that being an expert on x doesn’t logically entail being an expert on the ethics of x. Maybe Taylor has in mind an empirical generalisation, not a logical entailment. So, consider the following question instead:

(Q*) Does being an expert on x make it likely that you’re also an expert on the ethics of x?

Here, too, it’s far from clear that the answer is ‘yes’. After all, completely different skills will typically be involved in x-ing compared to thinking about whether and under what conditions we should be x-ing. Return to the contract killer again: being good at killing people requires very different skills from thinking about whether someone should be killed. Indeed, it might even be that the skills necessary for the former (such as a distinct disregard for human life) might make one worse at the latter.

But maybe this tells us more about contract killers than about expertise in general. So, let us consider the very example Taylor has in mind: IVF. Needless to say, being an expert on how to fertilise eggs in vitro requires a lot of skill and expertise. So does thinking coherently and in meaningful ways about whether and under what conditions IVF should be used. Clearly, however, the two forms of expertise are very different — one is medical, and the other ethical (or more generally: philosophical). In that respect, the contract killer case does not seem relevantly different from the IVF case.

It might be objected that medical doctors and researchers are taught medical ethics, and on that account will possess both forms of expertise. But that hardly justifies a positive answer to (Q) or (Q*). Quite the contrary: the reason that it makes sense to teach doctors and medical researchers medical ethics is exactly because medical ethical expertise does not flow automatically from medical or scientific expertise.

This is not to suggest that Winston doesn’t know what he’s talking about — maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. What seems clear, however, is that Taylor doesn’t know what she’s talking about, when suggesting that we should listen to Winston’s thoughts on the ethics of IVF on account of him being an expert on IVF. If the above is on point, we lack reason to think that being an expert on something makes you an expert on the ethics of that thing.