Avoiding Moral Choices

Call in the ethics expert

It does not require an expert to see that we are living in era of highly bureaucratized knowledge, a time that more than one pundit has described as "an age of experts." We have experts on everything-inter- and intrapsychic life, gender equity, child rearing, child violence, sex, marriage, diversity, dying/grief, leadership, you name it. The notion that where there is a problem there must be a professional listing in the Yellow Pages has become so ingrained that when it comes to a wide swath of issues, we almost instinctively defer judgment to one of the mandarin class, that is, to people who make their living by purveying one form or other of highly specialized knowledge. In the late twentieth century a new group of knowledge providers entered the ranks of experts, namely, professional ethicists.

Every culture has its own resources for responding to moral problems. The moral resources of the West derive from Jerusalem and Athens in the form of the Judeo-Christian faith and Greek philosophy which, on account of Paul’s attempts to convert the Greeks, left its impress upon the content of the Christian faith. Until quite recently, those seeking moral counsel could only go to the clergy, who were sometimes referred to as "directors of conscience." Moral direction was almost always connected with faith and the acceptance of religious authority, which is itself based on the mystical phenomenon of divine prophecy and revelation. With the Enlightenment, however, came a fervent attempt to found moral theory and much else on the pedestal of human reason alone. Secular moralists canonized the ethics of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and others. And yet, until the age of experts, ethical issues were not thought of as separable from the warp and woof of the practices of everyday life. The baker, the candlestick maker, and the physician each faced moral problems in the practice of his craft that he was expected to resolve by his own moral lights. In the late twentieth century, though, moral quandaries have become fare for the ethics expert.

Ethicists are, for the most part, lawyers or doctors of philosophy who have taken special training in ethical theory and its application to concrete situations in the professions. Professional moralists entered the ranks of the expert class in the late sixties. At that time, dramatic advances in medical technology, such as the development of the respirator, dialysis, and transplant surgery, raised a host of biting moral questions which philosophers were better suited to answer than physicians. Issues about personal identity loomed up. As people were kept alive much longer by artificial means, the questions emerged, What exactly are the limits of life? When is a person dead? Questions about distributive justice also came to the fore. Who, after all, should be saved when the need for a new life-saving technology is greater than the supply? While historians agree that technological advances ignited the bioethics trade, Henry Beecher’s 1996 whistleblowing article, "Ethics and Clinical Research," published in the New England Journal of Medicine, gave the decision impetus. Beecher, himself a physician, detailed the routine abuses of human research subjects in medical experiments. These breaches of public and private trust included injecting live cancer cells into unwitting patients and infusing mentally defective inmates with hepatitis virus and then testing different treatment modalities. When read against the backdrop of the heinous work of the Nazi doctors (who, as Robert Jay Lifton has shown, marshaled their own bioethical justifications), Beecher’s courageous essay left us less inclined than ever to leave physicians in the quietude of their morally privileged position.

About thirty years ago, a stranger, who was not a medical practitioner, began to appear at the bedside of the sick. That stranger was the first ethics expert, a bioethicist. Today, whenever there is a severe conflict between the hospital and a patient or patient’s family over treatment, this stranger is summoned to resolve it. Bioethicists are also called to speak our collective mind whenever there are public-policy questions such as: Should we cultivate embryos for research? Or, What is a just method of distributing organs to transplant candidates? Ethics experts are, however, no longer restricted to the biomedical professions.

Watergate and the corporate scandals of the eighties prompted some to see that medicine was not the only market for people with special training in ethics. In the beginning of the new millennium, we find professional ethicists standing in the corner and giving directions to many professions. Business ethics is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Ethicists are hired by corporations to develop workshops, handle whistle-blowing incidents, write value statements, and in general to function as ancillary superegos to executives highly focused on making money. For almost any given area of expertise, there is today another area of expertise called "the ethics of" that area of expertise. As a triple-click onto the Internet will attest, there are thousands of ethicists offering consultations on the moral questions specific to computers, sports, law, media, engineering, organization, and myriad other fields. Some ethicists call themselves "religious ethicists." Unlike their secular brethren, they claim, in theory at least, to treat as sacral the assumptions of their sacred texts. However, most ethicists are committed to trying to decide moral questions in "neutral" terms.

Freud, to whom the whole new class of experts owes an unacknowledged debt, knew that if you are going to legitimize a field of study you need institutions and journals devoted to that field of study. Into the late seventies there were but a handful of ethics institutes. Now it seems nearly every university and college boasts some kind of ethics center. The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics alone lists more than eighty institutional members. For a sampler of ethics think tanks, Dartmouth has its Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics; the University of Virginia has the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics; California State University hosts the Kegley Institute of Ethics; Ohio University sponsors the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics; Santa Clara University is home to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Ethics groups unaffiliated with postsecondary institutions are also multiplying. For example, last year I spent a couple of weeks in the coastal village of Camden, Maine, home of the free-floating Institute for Global Ethics. Over the past two decades, scores of specialized ethics journals have come into existence, many of which are the children of ethics institutes.

The service-oriented American economy has produced an almost fetishistic appetite for experts. In my nonexpert opinion, it is one thing to consult an expert for help with marital problems or with getting your child to do his homework; it is another, graver matter to begin handing over questions of right and wrong to a moral cognoscenti. And this is precisely what we have begun to do. The ethics doyens at the National Institutes of Health and other places are already occupied answering some of the definitive moral questions of our age, such as questions concerning cloning and stem-cell research.

But by what authority do ethics experts presume to speak? As Philip Rieff has observed, the very question of the legitimacy and limitations of the expert might well be understood as one aspect of the modern problem of authority. Oddly enough, ethicists do not pretend that their training in moral theory renders them more virtuous than their clients. It is not easy to gather ethics experts under the same conceptual umbrella; however, most of them do see themselves as possessing a special knowledge by virtue of which they can speak with authority on moral matters. But are ethicists kidding themselves and us? Is ethics a subject matter like medicine or physics about which one can become an expert? Or, are the claims to expertise in ethics spurious?

Philosophically speaking, we have been through this story before. In golden-age Athens there were teachers, namely, "the sophists," who claimed to be experts on ethics. For rather substantial fees, the sophists offered to impart their moral knowledge to the children of wealthy Athenians. Though he vehemently denied the charges, Socrates, who was executed in 399 b.c., was accused of being one of those ethics experts. In the trial of Socrates, as described by Plato, the oracle at Delphi proclaimed that there is no one wiser than Socrates. Befuddled by this pronouncement, Socrates attempted to find someone wiser than he. He cross-examined representatives from a wide swath of Athenian society. According to Plato’s text, the first gospel of Western philosophy, Socrates eventually came to understand that he was the wisest person in Athens by virtue of the fact that he alone knew that he was ignorant. Socrates concluded that the ethics experts of his time were impostors, or to be more precise, that they were flatterers who had a knack for telling affluent Athenians just what they wanted to hear. Does the judgment that Socrates passed upon the ethics experts of fourth-century Athens apply to the legion of ethics experts in contemporary America and Western Europe?

Though it was to the philosophical mind that the idea of ethics experts first occurred, there are key figures in the philosophical pantheon who would seem to frown on the ethics trade. Aristotle, for example, would be the last one to ring up for an ethics consult. For Aristotle, those in need of moral counsel would be best advised to seek out the most virtuous person they could find. According to Aristotle, moral percipience is a function of moral character, and character of proper habits derived from imitating virtuous deeds. It is the virtuous individual, and not necessarily the scholar who has been studying ethical case histories, who will have the most acute moral sensibilities. Indeed, were Aristotle to put together an ethics committee, it would probably be composed of the likes of Jesus, Socrates, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Mother Teresa, and other moral paragons. Perhaps it says something about the level of morality desired, but moral heroes are seldom sought after to sit on ethics panels. Discussing the question of expertise in ethics with a philosopher from Moscow, I once suggested that as an alternative to panels of people expert at parsing out arguments, we assemble a core group of moral champions. The philosopher laughed and said that they had tried such panels in Russia only to find that uncompromising moralists could not compromise enough to come to any decisions together.

Ironically, many ethicists describe themselves as followers of Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century German moral philosopher. Kant is a complicated kettle of fish. But one thing is certain, he believed the knowledge of good and evil to be universally distributed. If moral knowledge were not universally distributed and the horde of us stood in need of experts to teach us right from wrong, then those of us who were moral laypersons would be ignorant of our duties and therefore morally inculpable. For I cannot have moral obligations of which I am unaware. But Kant assures us that we are all morally culpable, or to put it in the patois of the present age, that we must all "take responsibility" for our actions. While Kant would agree that we need an expert to decide on the right course of medical treatment for grandmother’s cancer, we do not need an expert to decide on the morality of taking someone off life support.

Søren Kierkegaard and other masters of suspicion in the Christian tradition would scoff at the idea of ethics experts. Like Kant, Kierkegaard believed that we all know right from wrong, but as he put it, "we work our whole lives at eclipsing our ethico-religious knowledge," that is, at talking ourselves out of what we know. Why? Because the individual who listens to his conscience will often find himself marching against the orders of his desire for happiness. Telling your boss the truth may be the right thing to do, but it could cost you your job. For Kierkegaard, the only expert of moral moment would be one who could help us resist the self-deceptive tendency to take the easy way by dishonestly identifying it as the righteous way. In some circles, ethics experts are infamous for just this kind of psychological legerdemain. For example, in his scathing critique of professional ethics, Raymond Gaita notes that ethicists congratulate themselves for being able to ponder moral possibilities that they themselves previously judged to be beyond the pale, such as infanticide.

There are other arguments that can be mustered against the very idea of expertise in ethics. The philosophers David Hume and Arthur Schopenhauer, to say nothing of the contemporary evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, all hold that morality is based on feeling. According to this tradition, if you have sympathy for others you will probably behave morally, if not, then not. But if morality is based on feeling, the capacity for which I either inherit and/or learn, then what good is the hair splitting that is the stock and trade of ethics experts?

Over the last decade, histories of the bioethics trade, some of them critical, have begun to appear. Some of the skepticism about professional ethics expressed in these studies derives from the fact that for expert and nonexpert alike, all moral reasoning is based on assumptions that, in the end, cannot be justified against competing assumptions. In their practice, ethicists are given cases to analyze and judge. Here’s an example. A depressed septuagenarian with terminal cancer wants to stop all treatment. Should he be allowed to, or should his depression be regarded as rendering him incompetent to make such decisions? The conclusion drawn will depend not only on how you understand depression, but also on your foundational notions of right and wrong. The ethics expert with a Kantian orientation will argue that the man should be allowed to die, since for Kantians there is nothing more important than respecting the autonomy of the individual. The utilitarian expert, whose dictum is to do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, might surmise that everyone, family and medical staff included, would be best served if the man were not allowed to discontinue treatment. One expert begins with the premise that there is nothing more important than preserving human autonomy, another that all decisions ought to maximize happiness, still another, the Christian ethicist, that we ought to track our moral vectors from the Bible, and still another, the feminist, that the essential point is that we be guided by a caring attitude.

In short, all moral reasoning, expert and nonexpert alike, is based on assumptions. It is the recognition of just this fact that converts many undergraduates into relativists. Although ethicists may have extraordinary acumen in the dissection of moral problems, they do not deduce their recommendations from a set of incontrovertible principles absorbed in the course of their doctoral studies in ethics. Inasmuch as all our moral reasoning is guided by assumptions, we are all flying by the seat of our moral pants.

Ethics experts often disagree with one another. Give a hundred physicists the same straightforward problem and they will respond with roughly a hundred similar answers. If ethics constitutes a body of knowledge, then you might expect ethics experts to offer similar responses to the same straightforward problem. There is, however, much disparity in expert opinion in ethics. Indeed, in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Ethics, 144 ethicists were given a very straightforward and common hypothetical problem as to whether or not to remove life support from a patient in a vegetative state. Expert counsel was all over the board. But if experts disagree in their answers to relatively simple problems, how are we to distinguish between expert and nonexpert opinion?

One ethicist who directs a prominent ethics institute responds to the problem of the diversity of expert opinion by claiming that there are only a handful of people qualified to call themselves ethicists and within this select group there is in fact much consensus. The question of the proper criteria for establishing legitimacy is an urgent one among ethicists. While there are numerous graduate programs in applied ethics, there is currently no universally recognized credentialling procedure. And it is no wonder, as it is difficult to imagine what the qualifying exam for ethics experts might look like.

Not surprisingly, most experts agree that the lack of consensus among ethics experts is no argument against professional ethics. The director of one ethics institute rightly explains that the divergence of expert counsel is an understandable reflection of two factors: a difference of opinion about projected outcomes and a difference of basic premises. If one ethicist believes that the development of cloning procedures will lead to eugenics and another does not, then it should come as no surprise that the two will disagree as to whether or not cloning should be allowed. Philosophers working in the trenches of applied ethics will tell you that there is no more diversity of expert opinion in ethics than there is in, say, economics. An important difference, however, might be that economic theories generate predictions which either confirm or deny the theories. It is hard to fathom what consequences would confirm a bioethicist’s recommendations for stem-cell research.

Ethicists of the biomedical stripe sometimes defend their turf by arguing that science and technology are developing far ahead of our moral sensibilities. Those with strong personal interests often do a poor job of policing the practices that have to do with those interests. Scientists may not be the best people to set the moral parameters of the technologies that they have invented. If you are looking for a person to develop a protocol for the just distribution of organ donations, you do not want to ask someone in need of a transplant. One precept that people of different ethical persuasions agree to is the notion that fair judgment is best served by disinterested individuals. The very notion of the ethics expert is formed around the idea that in the professional ethicist we have someone who is both trained in ethical reasoning and relatively free of interest in the issue that he is charged with reasoning about.

However, critics of the ethics guild complain that ethicists have become just that, a guild with their own class interests. Indeed, Leon Kass, one of the proto-ethicists at the Hastings Center, the most influential ethics think tank in the world, noted in a retrospective piece that whereas bioethics started as a discipline that challenged many established beliefs, it is now itself in danger of becoming the establishment. Not only do ethicists fail to press bedrock questions about the society in which they are fast becoming the new clergy; they are often in the pockets of the hospitals and corporations that employ them. It is here important to remember that ethicists considered as a group are vocationally challenged. About half of them have graduate degrees in philosophy or religion. The job market in these fields is only a little stronger than the market for slide rules. When a hospital or health-care provider offers a three-thousand-dollar consultation fee on a case involving a dispute with a patient’s family, there is considerable pressure for the ethicist who wishes to secure further employment to come to a moral conclusion consonant with that of his employers. The image of the ethicist as a disinterested moral observer is not a convincing one.

t could, I suppose, be reasoned that the authority of professional ethicist is grounded in an extraordinary ability to illuminate ethical issues. Reluctant as I am to call upon my own experience, I must acknowledge that I have seldom if ever come away from reading an ethics case history with the sense, "Now, I see why they call some people experts on ethics." In the process of writing this article, I approached a number of business ethicists asking them to provide me with vignettes illustrative of the good works of ethics consultants. Surprisingly, they were rather reticent. Eventually, one proudly confided that he had made a positive intervention in a brewing gender equity issue. A financial consulting firm that was having a problem because their male associates had a practice of taking their male clients to gentlemen’s clubs. The female associates were becoming disgruntled because their male clients were transferring their accounts over to their male counterparts. The clouds of a court proceeding were forming. Enter the ethics expert, who sagaciously counseled the company executive to put a halt to the practice of entertaining clients at strip joints. Many of the interventions of ethics experts ring as flat-footed common sense supporting the Kantian claim that moral knowledge is universally distributed in the form of conscience.

There are many arguments for being wary of the claims of ethics experts. But life is not an argument. The Freudian or psychodynamic model of the self was toppled not by research and counterarguments but rather by the growing reluctance of insurance companies to pay for long-term psychotherapy. The fate of professional ethics will be determined by the fate of the institutions in which ethicists have become embedded.

And, in truth, it is not as though there were an essence of "ethics" and an essence of "experts" so that it could be definitively demonstrated that the idea of an ethics expert is a contradiction in terms. As that great deflator of metaphysical questions, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, taught us, the meaning of a term is fixed by the community that uses it. If we choose to relate to a class of academics as ethics experts, then there are ethics experts. There are worse fates. Professional ethicists have done some good. In the medical field, it is the ethics maestros who have made sure that people undergoing surgery or participating in experiments give their informed consent. Once again, when you are in the jaws of the golem that is the modern hospital, where one stranger of a doctor passes you off to another stranger of a doctor and miscommunications abound, the ethicist is now the best person to turn to for protection. And while it is true that the corporate world has embraced ethicists for financial rather than ethical reasons, most of the businesses in which ethicists have found a niche are, ethically speaking, better off for their presence. Arguments or no, the influence of professional ethicists will continue to expand. Ethicists are, after all, part of the growing cadre of lifestyle engineers, people who make their daily bread by teaching us how to relate to others and to ourselves. While I harbor no illusions about dismantling the ethics establishment, a concluding caveat is in order.

Sociologists maintain that through the process of specialization, nonspecialist come to lose faith in their own opinions. As this process goes, the very existence of a recognized guild of child-rearing experts will undermine the nonexpert’s confidence. Neil Postman observes that with the emergence of the cult of the expert, we, the nonexperts, have commenced to talk ourselves out of much of our common stock of knowledge. As early as the sixties, James Ackerman recognized the rising tide of self-doubt: "If one’s position in society implies no determinate base of judgment in areas outside of one’s competence, one has a choice between having no opinion or accepting the opinion of the expert, and the most available expert is the professional manufacturer of opinion."

It would be a moral blight for us to begin to take our own moral convictions with a grain of salt, as though they were the innocent musings of a nonspecialist, akin to someone not trained in medicine speculating about the origins of a disease. Freud went a long way toward breaking the spell of conscience by pointing out the primitive and unconscious forces that are the source of our moral inner voice. Accepting the idea that the voice of nonexpert conscience is the voice of an uneducated dolt would further undermine our individual sense of moral responsibility. As Anne McClean points out in her rigorously argued critique of the ethics industry, The Elimination of Morality (Routledge, 1993), one of the dangers of the professional ethics movement is that a diffident public could easily come to confuse the voice of reason with the voice of ethics experts. And as Ackerman and others point out, the public is becoming increasingly diffident.

The public is also developing a taste for ethics gurus. The New York Times Magazine now features a regular column, "The Ethicist." Readers send in moral quandaries such as, "I have twice told my bank that it has over-credited my account. What should I do?" As straightforwardly as a financial counselor, the ethics expert tells them. We must hope that people submitting such queries do not imagine that having received their responses they, the moral laypersons, are henceforth absolved from the responsibility of thinking about the matters at hand.

It is tempting to believe that scholars steeped in the theory of morals and its application could provide us with a semblance of moral certitude, especially when these scholars do not, à la other more prophetic moralists, demand that we turn our lives upside down and give everything to the poor. Ethicists can illuminate conflicting moral interests. They can rehearse the reasons for holding one moral position as opposed to another and can often provide the best arguments for their moral positions; but, for all their acumen in catching out fallacious moral reasoning, ethics experts do not enjoy a privileged relation to the moral truth. They do not bear the relation to their subject matter that physicists bear to physics or for that matter that physicians bear to medical science. As earlier noted, ethicists are currently carving out moral guidelines for cloning, stem-cell research, the distribution of organs for transplant, and other weighty matters. It would be an act of self-deception on our part to pretend that we cannot be morally wrong for enacting a policy that had received the imprimatur of a committee of ethics experts.

And yet there are strong psychological motives for wanting to recuse ourselves from moral decisions. For one obvious reason, it diminishes our own sense of responsibility and guilt. More than that, the fantasy that you need a doctorate in ethics to determine right from wrong encourages nonexperts to believe that ethics is an extremely complicated matter and so we should take a wait-and-see attitude toward our moral intuitions. Before obeying the inner voice that commands me to take more time away from my own private projects to help those less fortunate, I ought to let some time pass and think about it, for after all, ethics is a complicated matter; otherwise, there would not be so many experts on the topic. Kierkegaard taught that we should do what we take to be the right thing now, for the longer we wait the more likely it is that we will talk ourselves out of acting by convincing ourselves that the wide way is the righteous way. It may be that moral matters are more complicated than that complicated Dane envisioned; nevertheless, the image of ethics conjured by the acceptance of an ethical establishment tempts some of our worst impulses. 

Published in the 2001-03-23 issue: 

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His most recent book is The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (HarperOne).

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