Beware of Ethicist Ethics

On Ethics Alarms, as with its progenitor, The Ethics Scoreboard, commenters frequently accuse me of manipulating ethical arguments to endorse or support a political agenda. I often find such comments unfair, intellectually lazy and wrong, but please, keep making them. Avoiding a political or ideological slant is one of the most challenging tasks in rendering ethical analysis, and it is so easy (and tempting) to fall into the trap of letting bias rule reason that it helps to be regularly smacked upside the head.

Even with repeated smacks, true objectivity is nearly impossible in ethics, because of the central role played by ethical conflicts—not the ethical problem of conflicts of interest, but the philosophical problem of designating priorities among competing ethical values. Ethical conflicts require choosing which ethical value yields to another: a doctor knows a patient is dying and that nothing can be done. Is the ethical course to be honest, or to be kind? In public policy, ethical conflicts abound, and often involve deciding between two different versions of the same ethical value. Which version of “fair” is fairer, for example: allowing a talented, hard-working individual to keep the money she earns for her and her family, or for her to have to share some of that money with others, perhaps less talented and hard working, but also perhaps less fortunate, who do not have enough to survive? Ethical problems pit compassion against accountability, responsibility against forgiveness, autonomy against fairness, equity against justice. Once an ethicist has decided that one ethical value should be given precedence over another, he or she is likely to show that same preference again, perhaps before fairly considering the issues involved.

Once a preference becomes routine, an ethicist is not truly objective any more. Ironically, that is when he or she becomes marketable. Now companies, government agencies and medical boards can hire that ethicist to provide credible justification for their policies, because they can easily tell how the ethicist will weigh the issues. They will present the ethicist’s opinion as objective, which it may have been once. In reality, however, they purchased an opinion that was already formed.

This problem and others come into focus in a superb article by Sally Satel of the Hoover Institute. Satel, like the Institute, can fairly be labeled conservative, but her analysis of the inherent corruption in the ethics field is right on target. Read the article, it is primarily focused on the filed of bioethics, but her observations apply to other areas of ethics as well.  It concludes with this:

“At their best, bioethicists are scholars who study the intellectual and social history of value controversies in medicine and biotechnology. They can teach us about the technical and cultural antecedents of modern debates and show us how to engage in disciplined moral inquiry. They are skilled at drawing conceptual maps of the dilemma at hand while enumerating various ways to resolve it. In these ways, bioethicists have much to offer. But beyond this, their value is mainly cosmetic or bureaucratic. When called upon by politicians, their main task is to neutralize explosive issues or to provide ethical cover for decisions that have already been made. When physicians summon them, it is mostly to mediate disputes between patients, staff, and family members regarding end-of-life decisions. The media tap bioethicists for high-minded sound bites. In hospitals and in governmental agencies, they man the regulatory ramparts.

It is hard to gauge how much impact organized bioethics has had on society. If the activist wing closed up shop and the pundits went home, it is doubtful they would be missed. But one hopes that at least its scholarly and didactic entities will live on. With our growing technical capacity to manipulate our biology and thus our destiny, biomedical dilemmas will certainly increase in number and in difficulty, and they will require as much thoughtful attention as they can get. But social justice should be left to others — to the rest of us. The more bioethics promotes an agenda of social or economic reform, the more it betrays itself to be politics by other means.”

By sheerest coincidence, Sidel’s piece was published at the same time as a blog post by Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor for environmental ethics, science, and law at Penn State. His article, “Ten Reasons Why Examining Climate Change Policy Through an Ethical Lens is a Practical Imperative,” is such a perfect example of political bias cloaked in ethics jargon that one might suspect that it was concocted specifically to prove Sidel’s point.

The article is a sly device to cast global warming skeptics (a diverse group that includes 1) those who doubt the prevailing conclusions of climate change researchers that the Earth is on a path to catastrophic warming, 2) those who do not doubt that the globe is warming, but question whether science has established the cause, 3) those who doubt the proposed time-line of global warming even if the facts and cause of it have been correctly determined,  4) those who doubt that humans can stop it, and 5) those who believe humanity’s best chance of dealing with global warming is to try to develop technological solutions rather than to curtail energy use) as selfish and unethical villains fighting against the clear mandates of justice and equity.

All of his “ten reasons” presume answers to  complex questions that are still  matters of legitimate debate, and assign dubious roles like “the victims of climate change” and “those causing climate change.” They are chock full of ideological value judgements, such as his Reason 6:

“Given that the world needs a global solution to climate change, and that only just solutions to climate change are likely to be embraced by most governments, barriers to finding an acceptable global solution will continue.

This isn’t ethics; it is advocacy by stealth. It is not a “given” that the world needs a global solution to climate change, because it is neither “given” to what extent climate change will occur, or that such a thing as a “global solution” is even possible. The term “just solution” is meaningless unless one accepts the professor’s personal hierarchy of ethical values, which appears to begin with “distributive justice.” Worst of all, the entire article mischievously misuses a basic principle of  ethical analysis: one cannot evaluate what is the most ethical solution unless one has all the facts.By asserting that it is time for ethical considerations in climate change policy, Professor Brown dishonestly or recklessly presumes facts that support his own ideological preferences.

But that’s what ethicists do, far too often. Don’t ever hesitate to call us on it. We all need that smack now and then.

7 thoughts on “Beware of Ethicist Ethics

  1. Warning: Some of this is on topic. Some of this is just spouting off…

    I agree it must be difficult to maintain objectivity when so many so-called “ethicists” are using their self-proclaimed titles to proselytize rather than addressing actual ethics questions. Why don’t you send them all the 12 Nash questions and see if they pass muster? They probably wouldn’t even read them… something called “cognitive dissonance,” I think.

    Activists masquerading as ethicists.

    Activists masquerading as scientists (who just happen to conveniently “lose” their primary data).

    Activitists (e.g. Al Gore) spout ridiculously incorrect data and still make multi-millions being spokespersons for their moronic work. (The fact that Gore’s home’s “carbon footprint” is enormous, but he pays “extra” for it, means to me only cares about the environment when he can buy his way out of acting responsibly about it. Do research on George Bush’s ranch. It is almost entirely solar, wind, and water powered. No one pays attention to that because, well, he’s George Bush.)

    The change in verbiage — during this coldest winter in decades — from “global warming” to “climate change” is another sly ruse designed to fool the public (and amuses me greatly.)

    Raw data over the past 20 years or so might help real scientists and climatologists do some real analysis. But alas, it is “misplaced.”

    Let’s see, if Pfizer went to the FDA with a new drug, had all its summaries in place, a medical ethicist to testify to the efficacy of the procedural work and the honesty of the researchers, but admitted that Pfizer had “misplaced” all its raw testing data, do you think for one second the FDA would approve the drug?

    Nope. But the “climate change” group assumes (as do so many other groups, including governments and elected representatives) that we will buy their lines hook, line and sinker.

    Off topic even more, but here’s my chance. Don’t these people understand that the Earth is a living organism? Can man control the movement of tectonic plates? Can man control what is happening at the bottom of our oceans? We don’t have the technology to even explore the bottom of the oceans, neither have we identified even 30% of ocean life, or plant life, and we are finding new species of animals regularly. We are just learning to predict the weather at about 50% accuracy.

    The Earth has changed at it own speed over billions of years. Yes, man can damage the atmosphere and water sources. But it is supreme arrogance for people to assume that they like Earth just the way it is now and it is within man’s power to keep it that way. We can clean up the atmosphere, clean up rivers and lakes, but we CANNOT control the Earth as an organism. We inhabit it, but we don’t own it, and never will.

    • Nice. Just a little spouting…not too much. One type of individual that Jack forgot to mention in his post was the person who acknowledges climate change, but believes it will lead to a better climate. One of the things I would like to see the scientists prove is that the current climate is the optimal climate. Or perhaps they don’t think that a future climate that brings mass agriculture to the continent of Africa and to the Middle-East is a good climate.

      How did so many people who are afraid of “Change” vote in a man who sold himself on the platform of “Change”?

  2. Here are my observations of Mr. Brown’s “Ten Reasons” argued from the viewpoint of a skeptic:

    1. Those challenging climate change on any grounds, ethically dubious or otherwise, have been challenged on their arguments every day. It’s hard to figure out what his complaint is here.

    2. Well, how about “long-term narrow self-interest?” There is a rational economic argument that the currently proposed interventions to try to curb AGW will have a devastating effect on the economies of the nations responsible for producing the things that most help the poorer nations, and that impact will be felt for generations to come. People will be less generous with their money and research if they have more troubles feeding their family.

    Arguably, the net benefit to acting against AGW would do more harm to the most vulnerable in terms of reducing needed aid than the impact of the climate change. Is it really ethical just to plunge right in and try to save the world, disregarding the possibility that the effort to do so might do more harm than good?

    This is essentially Bjorn Lundberg’s argument — that the effort spent on reducing AGW would be better spent helping the poor countries directly.

    3. What does “value-neutral economic facts” even mean? Facts are inherently value-neutral, but economic systems are not.

    Are the scare-quotes around the word “facts” supposed to suggest that Mr. Brown knows the real facts, but economists do not? If he disputes the economic conclusions of experts in the field, fine, but as my math teacher used to say, “show your work.”

    4. In this point, he essentially argues, “It’s unethical to wait until all the uncertainties are resolved to act,” which I think I would accept as right.

    But before we stake our economic future on a decision that may or may not have any helpful effect in the long term that comes at a huge cost to society, isn’t it fairly important to have a theory that actually, you know, stands up to scientific scrutiny? Isn’t it fairly important models that produce results that are predictable and repeatable? Isn’t it also pretty important to examine the counter-arguments from your scientific peers rather than trying to keep them from the public?

    Doesn’t the ethics of solving any problem require that the problem is established to exist, at least beyond a reasonable doubt? Does he actually believe that is the case with AGW and its effects on the world? If so, I hereby accuse him of scientific malpractice.

    5. How many times has the press repeatedly decried the horrors of what could happen to the pygmies in sub-Saharan Africa or the poor in New Orleans harmed by the supposedly AGW-caused hurricane Katrina? Does he really believe that will be ignored? Does he even read newspapers or the Internet?

    6. Presumption of facts not in evidence.

    7. True. That’s the nature of humanity, I’m afraid.

    8. Presumption of facts not in evidence.

    9. Nations will not act unilaterally to solve global warming. That is surely right, especially when the scientific support for the problem is so rife with controversy and is very difficult to defend against critics.

    One might argue that’s how it should be.

    10. Nations will act in their own self-interest. I thought we just established that.

    Jack, you’re right. This isn’t ethical analysis, it is environmental and political activism wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of ethical analysis, and hence, unethical.

    I don’t really fault him for his idea, merely his execution. He could have done this same thing in the hypothetical, set his bias aside for just a minute, and done something useful.

    It is no doubt true that national self-interest, which seems to be his over-arching theme, will interfere in any global problem that needs solution. We see it all the time with nuclear non-proliferation issues, among countless others.

    Do we have an ethical obligation not to harm others with our activities? Undoubtedly. But a simple claim of harm without substantive proof is clearly unfair. It is also seems necessary to me to balance any unintentional harm against the good, intended or unintended. How many of the poor will actually be helped by global warming?

    He asks about the burden of proof, and who should have it. I suggest that ethically, the burden of proof should be 100% on those claiming the harm. That’s how it is in our legal system and I think that makes sense here as well.

    • Superb post, Glenn. I wanted to do exactly this, but declined for two reasons: it would turn the article into another global warming science/policy critique, and it would take a lot of time to do it right.

      You did it better than I would have anyway. And I hope, having done it, you post this on the site where his piece appears and some of the other blogs that reflexively accepted it as brilliant. The more I read it the more annoyed I get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.