Over at left2right, Gerald Dworkin poses the following rhetorical question:
If you wanted someone to aid you in making a difficult ethical decision about medical treatment for your child would you be better off consulting a moral philosopher, or a physician who has dealt with similar cases for 30 years? I know whom I would choose.
The thought of leaving a significant personal moral decision in the hands of a moral philosopher in the analytic tradition would of course send a shudder through any professional philosopher. I myself also wouldn't be aided a great deal with the decision by a physician who has dealt with similar cases in the past, except insofar as she could provide me with additional facts about the consequences of past decisions.
The people I would turn to for aid in such a decision are those friends of mine whom I regard as having a certain kind of wisdom and insight about the human condition. I can think of a few moral philosophers who have this quality, and I can think of a few doctors I know who have this quality. But in my experience, moral philosophers as a group do not saliently have this characteristic any more than metaphysicians do (which is to say not much at all). Moral philosophers are not even more likely to be well-informed or concerned about history and politics than any other group of philosophers. In short, moral philosophers are no more likely than other philosophers to be humanists, with all that that vague word connotes.
It's clear to me why (say) someone working in metaphysics is not likely to have more insight into the human condition than the average mortal. It's because many people working in metaphysics are captured principally by the problem of working out the consistencies of an abstract problem space with only dubious connections to how we live our lives. Moral philosophers tend as a whole to be exactly the same as metaphysicians, except they have chosen a somewhat different problem space to explore the logical relations between theses. There are of course also strong practical considerations in favor of choosing this problem space, as it is more likely to result in gainful employment.
This is not to deny that medical ethicists have an important role to play in hospitals. Medical ethics boards in hospitals play important roles in helping doctors and families make difficult decisions. Some of these decisions are perhaps guided by the moral philosophy done by analytic moral theorists. But I would bet a considerably larger portion are guided by the factors cited by Dworkin, namely "sympathetic feelings, experience with the subject matter, and intuitive insight". As my physician wife has pointed out, the members of these committees are often doctors who are respected for their humanity by other doctors.
The fact that we professional philosophers clearly don't regard even those members of our community charged to reflect upon the good as exemplars of wisdom raises once again some of the issues about the relation between philosophy as currently practiced and philosophy as a humanistic tradition that we have discussed before.
UPDATE: David Velleman has some comments on the topic of this post here, which raise the issue of the responsibilities academic philosophers (not just moral philosophers, I think) have in the non-academic sphere. I hope to return to this topic later this term.