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.