Do all ethicists have a messiah complex?

Last May, Nathan Emmerich wrote a column warning that bioethicists must not become a “priestly caste.”In the column, he warns that giving bioethicists moral authority over all practices in medicine and healthcare will have an anti-democratic effect and hinder public discourse.

He may have overstated the authority that bioethicists generally have, but it is true that some see their job as handing down judgment on various practices in medicine and research while others, frankly, would be happier to just accept the opinion of “experts” in order to avoid having to take full responsibility for their ethical decisions. The ethical expert has arisen because of rising demand. After making a thorny decision, who would not want to be able to say, “My decision was reviewed and approved by experts in ethics”?

Ethicists will do well to resist a priestly role. If you begin to believe that something is morally correct simply because you believe or say that it is, then you should apply for sainthood, not a position as an ethics consultant. When Euthyphro is asked if he knows he is doing the right thing, he replies, “The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?” Euthyphro considers himself an expert on matters of morality and dismisses any suggestion that his opinions might be challenged. As he attempts to explain himself, his logic breaks down. Ethicists as experts would do well to open themselves to challenges from all corners as Emmerich suggests.

All this is further complicated, though, by Eric Schwitzgebel’s finding that ethicists are no more ethical than non-ethicists. Comparing ethicists and other professors, Schwitzgebel and his colleague, Joshua Rust, found that both ethicists and their colleagues reported that the ethicists were no more ethical than their colleagues. This is not terribly surprising. I may think I am a pretty ethical person but not be willing to say my colleagues in metaphysics are a bunch of thieves and charlatans. By the same token, they may think I am pretty ethical but have enough self-respect not to sell themselves short.

Of further harm to the reputation of ethicists, Schwitzgebel says ethics courses do not appear to have much affect on the ethical behavior of students. He notes that many of us who teach ethics do no claim that it will make our students behave more ethically. This is probably true in most philosophy departments, but ethics courses in law schools and business schools, for example, are designed to prevent unethical behavior down the road.

It isn’t likely that any type of ethics course can cause an unethical person to become more ethical, but courses can have an effect on ethical behavior. Courses in specific disciplines can provide a framework for codes of behavior in a particular field such as law, business, psychotherapy, or medicine. Through such courses, students can become well versed in expected norms as well as actual regulations from laws or professional codes of behavior. In addition, students can learn to examine cases and apply accepted principles of their fields to various situations they may encounter during their careers.

Theoretical courses give students a larger ethical toolbox to examine conflicts that arise in their careers and also in their daily lives. Few ethics professors have had students say that, thanks to the ethics class, they have stopped lying and cheating, but most of us have had students tell us that they now see questions in a new light. Rather than simply relying on instinct or prior teaching, students learn new ways to frame ethical problems and new approaches for identifying possible ethical harm. If nothing else, we give the students who are already ethical a greater vocabulary for articulating their actions and beliefs.

With any luck, ethicists, ethics instructors, and students will all leave the class with a bit of humility. The ethicist who believes his or her own hype as a moral authority has passed into dangerous territory. At best, the ethicist has the tools to examine ethical problems with greater detail and nuance. In the end, people eventually have to act, and a thorough ethical analysis can help guide them.

But ethics courses have a greater importance. Imagine a society where no one ever studied or discussed ethical theory or ethical decisions. It is impossible to imagine such as society, I think, because we do have to make decisions, and that requires thinking about them in detail. Some people would always rely on their “gut feeling,” but others would worry and ponder and ruminate. And they might seek the counsel of others who have spent time worrying and pondering and ruminating. And soon we would see the rise of a priestly caste and a separate group of committed but imperfect thinkers devoted to analyzing ethics in both theory and practice. We would make many mistakes, and many people would be hurt, but at least we would be trying.

At least we are trying.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in bioethics, education, ethics, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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