Ethical Expertise and Personal Character

By Callahan, Sidney | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

Ethical Expertise and Personal Character


Callahan, Sidney, The Hastings Center Report


We celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Hastings Center and realize how quickly a new academic and intellectual species can evolve. Today, Homo ethicus is well established in a newly recognized territory, that is, people pursue Ph.D. degrees in bioethics and actually get jobs. While bioethics is now more or less centered in philosophical ethics, it remains true to its interdisciplinary origins--it collaborates with theology, literature, and psychology, as well as with law, medicine, and policy studies.

As a psychologist and longtime participant observer of the bioethical enterprise, I contend that psychological factors have always played a major role in bioethics. After all, human beings are the "self-interpreting animals," to use Charles Taylor's pungent phrase, ergo ethical questions involve subjective psychological processing within conscious selves. What, for instance, constitutes an 'informed consent,' or a 'substituted judgment'? When we deal with an actual person's 'pain,' 'risk taking,' 'suffering,' 'needs,' 'desires,' 'interest,' 'competence,' or 'quality of life,' what is going to count as an adequate description? Even the first ethical commandment, to "do no harm," has to confront the psychological reality that human beings can be harmed without suffering a scratch.

To my mind the subjective and interpersonal dimensions of bioethics have too often been obscured, subsumed into objective, abstract formulations that more easily pass muster with physicians, lawyers, and philosophers of a certain cast of mind (gender irrelevant). Yet one psychological set of subjective concerns remains visible: how do you engender highly ethical decisionmakers? How does a person's character and personality affect ethical action? Must you be morally wise and good to do bioethics well?

Debates over ethical competence and ethical expertise arise when you attempt to educate or induct newcomers into bioethics, or try to persuade the morally tone-deaf in some institution or profession. Despite these problems, I'm afraid most ethicists would still maintain that the personality and morality of the individual ethicist has little to do with the quality of his or her ethical analyses or judgments. As long as ethicists don't take bribes, abuse drugs, or suffer from medically diagnosed Alzheimer disease, their personal qualities can be ignored. Perhaps these hyperrationalists could be induced to accept an "impaired ethicist act"--but only after the profession's "credentialling problems" have been properly ironed out.

Those claiming that ethical expertise has little to do with personal character tend to offer odd analogies to prove their point. At one college where I was holding forth on the importance of emotions in ethical decisionmaking, I was asked, "My dear Mrs. Callahan, do you really think it makes any difference if your surgeon reads novels?" My questioner, for his part (gender not irrelevant?), was a mathematician advocating a computer approach to bioethics (quantify the variables, enter the information, run the program, and read out the solution). …

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