Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
III. The Continuing Dialogue
With the above as background, how shall theory and practice hold each other accountable? Some of the fundamental commitments needed have been mentioned already; let us summarize.
First, we need humility: the recognition that "ethics" has no privileged home in either theory or practice, and the willingness to learn from each other.
Second, we need integrity. Can ethicists, of all people, be tempted to personal corruption? They certainly can. Of all the professions, we have the fewest external checks on the honest use of our expertise. An orthopedist who undertakes, in order to please his clientele, to set broken limbs according to their fancy and not according to his best knowledge, will soon have a bandy-legged, and very angry, clientele. A consultant to businesses who undertakes, to please management, to tell his clients that their preferred course of action will achieve greater profits, when his expertise tells him opposite, will be found out on the bottom line. But who can check up on the advice of the ethicist, who promises not that his advice will make you well, or profitable, or even keep you out of jail, but just that he will steer you as near as possible to the morally right course through your difficulties? Given that there are no checks, the temptation to tell the client what he wants to hear, in order to keep his business, can be very strong indeed. The one who makes his living by telling people what they want to hear has been known, since Plato's time, as a flatterer. The temptation to live by flattery is the major corruption available to the ethicist; since not even another ethicist, let alone any disciplinary board of ethicists, can provide objective checks and corrections for the work of ethics, the only defense against flattery is personal integrity. Is personal integrity in greater supply among those professionally engaged in ethics than among other professions? One would hope so, but there is no evidence that it is.
Third, and related to the above, the commitment of the field of applied ethics must be to the art or skill that the professional professes, and to the service that the professional provides, not to the existing economic or political arrangements that define "professional" for the sociologist. (In the case of business, that commitment translates to concern for the product or the service, for the industry that produces or renders it, and for the conditions under which it is produced or rendered, as opposed to the company's bottom line for this quarter.) Money corrupts, and lots of money corrupts absolutely. It could be argued. for example, that third-party reimbursement, that made the practice of medicine so surely profitable, was the worst thing that ever happened to the profession. Suddenly new industries, medicaid mills, sprang up to mock the honest practice of the art; suddenly the moneygrubbers of the student body, who used to go (appropriately) into business, flocked to medicine, and changed the profession to suit their own motivations. The third-party era can be blamed for the host of legal restrictions and terrors now visited upon the practice of medicine, and the transformation of the field from a gentle fraternity of practitioners to a network of bureaucratic organizations, employing the physicians and operating for the sake of the stockholders. The practitioners have prospered at the expense of the art; the only way to resist such transformations is to remove as far as possible the temptation of the big dollars. This will not be a simple job.
The fourth commitment is the simplest. The professional is enjoined, as part of the profession, to remember the common good, to recall the duty to the society at large. The ethicist is pre-eminently enjoined to bear that duty in mind. The professions are, to a large extent, the signal beacons of society; more than the strict legal structure of government, the networks of business and the professions hold the society together. It takes a special effort to ask, of any professional practice, how does this affect the society as a whole? Applied ethics is the discipline committed to ask that question.
The last three commitments above may be placed in parallel with the three imperatives of section II: the commitment to the moral person with respect for autonomy, the commitment to service with beneficence, and the commitment to the moral law with justice. We have seen that the three do not operate certainly and automatically and that their application in any given case can be a matter of agonizing conflict and indecision. The capstone commitment of the field of applied ethics is the articulation of the indecision and the resolution of the conflict, which can only occur, in each case, with full and free discussion. It is the commitment to continuing the dialogue: to testing our theories with the practice of the fields, to subjecting our practices to the scrutiny of theory, and to engaging the energies of all professionals in that painful self- examination that Socrates tells us makes life worth living. The field of applied ethics is the legitimate, and most appropriate, heir of that Socratic tradition and of the conversation he started. We have made a decent start, but it will take continued dedication to prove ourselves worthy of our inheritance.
Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D.
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