Bioethics Blogs

What Is Ethics Doing?

I recall being a PhD candidate in philosophy in the 1970’s,
I often pondered the subject matter of my graduate courses in ethics. I would
ask myself, what does any of this have to do with ethics? What are we doing?

As our courses went from Kant to Mill to G.E. Moore to the
Emotivists and others, I couldn’t help but have a sense of unreality about the
content of what I was learning.

How can we use reason to find a basis for knowing right
action? What are the ways we can define right action based on a normative moral

What is the meaning of good? Right? And obligation? Can
these terms be defined within a theoretical, substantive moral framework or are
they just expressions of feelings and emotions without any cognitive content? If
they are more than the latter, what do they mean?

To be sure those were interesting questions but only if you
were an ivory tower philosopher. Philosophers were thinking and arguing over
which moral theory was more persuasive and cogent, but clearly they weren’t
doing anything in terms of actions or strategies that might have an impact on
any aspect of the practical world. Ethics was entirely a theoretical, academic
pursuit. Which raised the question, just what were we philosophers fit to do
besides argue with each other and prepare ourselves for a future in academia?

It was about this time that the practical ethical dilemmas
in medicine began to make regular headlines in the news. From organ
transplantation to rationing dialysis machines to life supports in the ICU to
test tube babies, many moral dilemmas were arising that required practical
ethical attention in public policy and law.

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.