Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
by Lisa Newton


I. The genesis of interest in professional ethics

Whence the concern over professional ethics? We may impose the oldest division in philosophical ethics upon the instant subject matter and ask whether ethics is being worried about for good reasons, i.e. as an end in itself, or for "bad" reasons--i.e. as a means to some other, non-ethical, end. If the latter--if the concern for ethics is being fostered to serve some needs outside ethics--then it is probable that we will not be very good at answering those needs. Experience suggests several types of concern that might be motivating that interest, and a corresponding number of cautions to the philosopher in this field.

A. The Pursuit of Self-lnterest

From the philosophical side, it is worth pointing out, most of the philosophy professors are in this field by accident. Due to the renewed interest in ethics in business and the professions, which led in one step to intense interest on the part of accrediting agencies for the professional schools, in the teaching of ethics on the undergraduate and occasionally graduate level, applied ethics became the major expansion area for the jobs in philosophy. But where did that professional interest come from? Not usually from any great dedication to truth and goodness.

From the professional side, the concern for ethics was often another name for concern with legal liability. Good physicians have reflected periodically on the ethical dimensions of their profession for centuries (more on that below), but the bulk of the profession did not become really interested in the subject until the burgeoning of malpractice litigation in the 1970's. The issues taken up in the "ethics" seminars, workshops and conferences that marked the formative years of medical ethics were precisely those which recent court decisions, legislation, or attempts at legislation. had rendered problematic: abortion, autonomy and informed consent, the temminal care of the dying, the treatment of seriously compromised newborns. In these early years, many of the medical persuasion hoped that the new breed of "ethicists" could hand them the rules that would defend them in court, or better yet keep them out of court.

But philosophers tend not to know very much about the law. Such are the complexities of the law that any who pretended to such expertise tended to be found out rather soon; but that is beside the point. The point is that our first job in such cases, in all fields of practice, is to distinguish, in every context, between the demands of law and the demands of ethics--between the danger of being sued, prosecuted, jailed or defrocked, and the much subtler, but more pervasive danger of being systematically and cruelly wrong. One of our first lessons was that we must think beyond the law and teach nervous professionals to do the same.

There are other bad, or at least incomplete, reasons for professionals to be concerned with ethics. Still in the 1970's, we encountered a different set of motivations among certain professional groups, most notably employed professionals like nurses and engineers. In their training and the traditional self-definitions of their fields, they were professionals just like the physicians--very like the physicians, in fact, with whom they often compared themselves. But their career paths were those of employees of business--to succeed in the profession was to stop practicing the professional's art and to assume supervisory or managerial roles in the employer's establishment. And early or late in that career, the employers' demands were always potentially, and sometimes agonizingly actually, in conflict with professional standards of practice. The exploration of professional ethics among the employed professionals has been, for the most part, a renewal and a continuation of a genuine dialogue on ethics that had been carried on for decades. But not far from the surface, there often lurked a secondary theme: help us develop a professional ethic that we may better define ourselves as a profession, and thus attain to the autonomy, prestige, and income level achieved by the physicians, without having to sell out to some front-office management with its profit motive and its bureaucratic concerns. The development of an ethic was intended, in part, to legitimize the profession in the eye of some public.1

A fundamental misunderstanding attended the implementation of the secondary agenda. The treatment of the professional has little to do with printed codes and much to do with economic arrangements and political approaches. The effort to enhance professional status fizzled, not because the employed professionals were unequal to the professional model set by the doctors and the lawyers in solo practice, but because that whole model was destined for oblivion. As the HMO concept of professional practice continues to advance in medicine, and storefront legal firms continue to crowd out the private practitioners, the only non-employed professionals in the very near future may be the unemployed professionals. Times change, and bring down the mighty. (It is not clear that the professional was ever meant to be mighty. More on this below.)

The development of business ethics in the late 1970's and 1980's brought us one more bad reason to go after ethics. It happens to be the case, unsurprisingly, that over a very large range, the ethically correct decision is also the decision that will please the customer, conform to the law, and generally optimize returns for the company. This unremarkable fact can be seized upon for new and trendy company slogans: "At XYZ, the right thing to do is the bottom line," or, "Ethics is everyone's first job at ABC Company." For ethics, after all, is just good business, over that range, and will indeed improve the bottom line. Therefore, just as the businessman went after computers and industrial psychology when they were hot, now they go after ethics. This trend is still very much with us. A recently published text in business ethics lies in front of me. The cover copy reads: "For managers and executives, employees and members of the board, the one book that shows you (bullet) How ethics is the key to improved performance in business--for your company and yourself (bullet) What is really important about "corporate culture" (bullet) Why social responsibility is good business (bullet) How businesses go wrong--and right."2 I am overjoyed at such candor. In this there is no need to ferret out underlying profit-oriented motives from all that ethical rhetoric. In this, the profit-oriented motives are sitting right there on the cover of the book. The question is not, what do they really want? The question is, should we, as philosophers, cooperate in this naively cynical, profit-maximizing endeavor?

The answer to that question is, yes, we should. I take that answer to be counterintuitive, and will use it to launch an account of the good motive, maybe the only good motive, to engage in applied ethics.

B. The Dialogue of Theory and Practice

The distinction on which this argument turns has several meanings. When we distinguish "theory" and "practice" we sometimes mean only to distinguish the analytic study of a field of motion from its manipulation, as physics is theory to engineering's practice. As often, we mean to separate the projection, direction, or intention of an action from the act itself, as somehow opposed or different, but with no judgement on either side. Thus "in theory" the corporation is the merest projection of the self-interest of the shareholders, "in practice" the corporation takes on a life and personality of its own, developing even a "corporate culture" to define its inner order. More often, "theory" is the way things are supposed to be, while "practice" is the way things fail, dismally or comically, to live up to the dreams that people had about them. Thus our college's core curriculum is designed so that "in theory" our students proceed logically through stages of inquiry and knowledge, from curiosity as freshmen to wisdom four years later; "in practice," all but the most fortunate of students take a hodgepodge of unrelated courses, with teachers ranging from excellent to execrable, the net result of which they will have to synthesize for themselves, probably long after leaving our ivied halls. As I will be using the same distinction, the normative element of "theory" will be retained, but generalized to include all projection of norms or "ideals" for human life or action; "practice" will be generalized to include all fields of human action, i.e. all areas where human beings intentionally undertake to do things that have consequences for other human beings. things for which they can be held responsible by the society in which they act. Thus for my purposes, the quintessential theorist is the philosopher, debating the merits of theories of virtue as opposed to theories of justice; the quintessential practitioner is U. S. President Harry Truman deciding to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. That example may serve us well as an illustration.

Harry Truman dropped the bomb in, and ultimately on, the era of Philosophical Analysis. Since Truman was unpublished in philosophy, the bomb, so devastating to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made not a ripple in the field of philosophy. Truman took responsibility for the bomb and everything that followed from the bomb. Ethics paid no attention. This, I think, is the ultimate development of that era that precedes the forging of our field: theory and practice proceed as if the other did not exist.

The era of Analysis was succeeded by the era of Confrontation: philosophers joined the Radical Caucus, clenched fists, led demonstrations, and condemned the atomic bomb, Truman for dropping it, and the war in Vietnam. The confrontations that took place in the usually boring meetings of the APA are now the stuff of legend, or at least of history: we youngsters wanted to know of our elders. what are you doing? and they asked in turn, quite literally, what are you thinking of? And the dispute seemed quite fruitless to most of the membership.

But a principle was being established: when the affairs of humanity reach dreadful ethical passes, the philosopher trained in the traditions of Plato and Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, need not and should not pretend to total ignorance of the principles of judgement of these affairs.3 And by the time those years were over, the public (and academic, corporate, and professional) officials realized that . somehow they were going to have to take those judgments into account in their decisions. It may be that howls in the street, the howls of fanatics, were required to bring both sides awake and to their feet. But the outcome was good enough: that thereafter, theorists and practitioners would attempt, at least sporadically, to communicate before the next bomb was dropped. Out of all that tumult came an insight, a still small voice that spoke equally to the successors of A. J. Ayer and the successors of Harry Truman: theory shall be accountable to practice, and practice to theory.

C. The Forms of Accountability

The insight is worth a moment of reflection before we leave it. In that rule of judgement, we have a motive for applied ethics that is new to both theory and practice. In this, we tell the philosophers who choose to venture on these grounds that they shall not dictate to Harry Truman, or physicians, lawyers, businessmen, or engineers the norms of "autonomy" or "equity" that are supposed to govern their professional practice, without a very thorough knowledge of that practice and the actual constraints--constraints of time, cost, and limited information--that circumscribe it. And we tell practitioners that their experience and intuition are insufficient for defensible judgment, and that all their constraints do not exempt their decisions from ethical scrutiny. The change cannot be overstated. The philosopher who comes to applied ethics must abandon ingrained attitudes of contempt and fear vis-a-vis the fields of practice, and approach the professional in a spirit of cooperation and willingness to learn. The same attitudes must be adopted by the practitioner, overcoming a tradition of disdain for the non-productive, "head in the clouds," theoreticians. The first requirement for cooperative endeavor is therefore mutual humility; we may identify that humility as the singular virtue of applied ethics.

Applied ethics, then, is the field that holds ethical theory accountable to practice and professional and business practice accountable to theory. As such, it is understandably suspect to both sides of the dyad: no one likes to be held accountable to outsiders, and the history of mutual dislike leaves theory and practice very much outsiders to each other. But systematic accountability provides the only authoritative structure that could justify inquiry into public ethics--the ethical behavior of public figures--and that could justify the critique of philosophy on grounds of systematic irrelevance. At present, the public "ethics" inquiries tend to be more political than ethical, and public critiques of academic ethics tend to be nonexistent. In the section that follows, we explore the capabilities of Applied Ethics to remedy those conditions.





Copyright © 2002, Hale Chair. All rights reserved.
Created by Elsi Caldeira
Last modification Tuesday, 22-Jan-2008 09:34:30 EST
Best viewed in Internet Explorer 5.0+ and Netscape 6.0+