In the last century, the dialogue between academic inquiry/scientific discovery and ethics has undergone unprecedented development. This development is completely understandable given the enduring questions and critical reflections that have arisen from a necessary tension between a consideration of what is possible for human beings to discover or invent, and how such discoveries and inventions may impact the good of individuals, societies, and cultures. This is a healthy and critical tension that has as its ultimate objective the preservation and advancement of "The Good" and even "The Best."
Yet the dialogue between discovery/invention and ethics has also developed and deepened because of real historical tragedies that arose from a lack of ethics education or awareness, an inability to engage in mature ethical discernment, or everpossible problems due to less-than-positive motivations. In response to such incidents, governments and societies have enacted diverse regulations and set up oversight bodies to ensure that "The Good" is always maintained. Such provisions have great importance in research of all disciplines, in healthcare and human services, and in organizational systems and their mission development.
Yet a casual observation of some sets of regulations--or of the activities of some various ethics leadership bodies, or boards or committees --makes one wonder: What is their strategic purpose? What is their understanding of "ethics" itself? What is their role in ethical leadership within their institution? What approaches have ethics leadership bodies evolved that may not be as helpful as others? What strategies might be envisioned that will help ethics leaders and committees to maintain their ultimate purpose in the most beneficial way'?
Given the essential and diverse roles of ethics leadership bodies in research, healthcare, and organizational systems, there is a need in this age to come to a richer understanding of the nature of ethics itself and of how ethics promotes the best of all values systems while seeking to prevent problems and errors. Upon this foundation, it is necessary for ethics leadership and ethics bodies to engage in critical self-reflection upon their own role, style, approach, and meaning within the scheme of an organization's life and culture. Ethics leaders in diverse ways call researchers, healthcare leaders, and professionals to the task of living up to the highest values. It is equally important, then, that ethics leaders and committees engage in that same activity for themselves and for the ongoing development of their service on behalf of others.
Ethics leadership in society has always been a constant and critically important factor for academic, professional, and personal life. This article will seek to promote and undergird the essential role of ethics leadership in research, in healthcare, and in organizational systems. To do so, it will be necessary to address the fundamental nature of ethics itself, its place in the human historical context, several areas where quality improvement and change are needed, and several strategies for future growth and development. Lastly, what will be posited briefly is a powerful metaphor by which ethics leaders or ethics boards can understand their ongoing and essential role in the communities they are privileged to serve.
Ethics: Its Nature, Its Domain
If one is to understand the critical and powerful role of ethics leaders and structures in research, healthcare and organizational systems, a grounded understanding of ethics itself is important. Yet how is ethics best understood? From the most casual observations of daily conversation, one would have to conclude that the term itself is used and understood in a wide variety of ways. Like all other terms in common vocabulary, the word ethics is connotative or, in linguistic terms, tensive. In other words, it is "many meaninged. …