Ethics here, ethics there, ethics nearly everywhere. Welcome to the world of hyphenated ethics: business-ethics, medical, environmental, media, sports, advertising, legal, even military-ethics. With ethics commissions, committees, councils, consultants, certificates, etc., ethics is big business. Just about anyone can claim to be an “ethicist,” a term I decried years ago.
Who are these “ethicists”? What qualifies to be one? In my field, health care ethics, the stakes are high. Recommendations regarding right, wrong, and in-between can be matters of life and death. While ethicists disclaim moral expertise, their views carry weight in bureaucratic institutions. We expect them to be competent in the demanding task of moral analysis, with in-depth experience and interpersonal skills.
But are they?
Take “bioethics.” “Bioethicists” serve on government commissions, hospital ethics committees, and Institutional Review Boards; they work as clinical ethics consultants, and help develop medical programs like our Albany Medical Center’s Alden March Bioethics Institute, where I teach Intercultural Bioethics. When issues make headlines, media solicit ethicists’ comments. As vice president for organizational and clinical ethics at Kansas City’s Center for Practical Bioethics, I was trained to deliver “talking points” when asked to comment. Hard-wired as a philosopher, I resist reducing complex issues to sound-bites.
In their landmark 2007 study of 600 hospitals, U.S. Veterans Affairs ethics officer Ellen Fox and colleagues discovered 45 percent of clinical ethics consultants surveyed lacked formal training and only 5 percent completed a graduate program or fellowship in bioethics. Even after the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities devised “core competencies” for clinical ethics consultants, Alden March director Bruce White rightly wonders whether these standards are adequate.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.