Picking a Fight on Normative Ethics
October 30, 2009
I have read the final article in the HEC Forum, the one by Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. who seriously questions whether or not one can define what a clinical ethicist is and does.
Maybe I’m just rarin’ to pick a fight, but I was disturbed by his paper.
He says, “The existence of clinical ethicists and ethics consultation is the result of a set of developments and commitments rooted in Enlightenment assumptions about the possibility of discovering through rational analysis and argument a canonical morality or at least a normative moral consensus. The difficulty is that these Enlightenment assumptions have proven false. Secular sound rational argument cannot resolve the important moral controversies we face, nor is there a non-controversial understanding of when consensus and by whom would be normative and for what. . .Ethics consultation is itself a matter for disagreement.”
I am not directly addressing CEC’s, but I am very concerned that his remarks be misread by ethics committee members, the education of whom has been a principal work of the Center during our 25 year history.
Is normative ethics possible for our committees to achieve? Yes, within parameters of the institution whether it be the mission and vision statement or the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic institutions or whatever states the purpose of the institution. Those, broadly speaking, express the presuppositions, assumptions, values on which the institution rests.
Argument (in a committee’s case consult) starts from there, and though the documents may express the aim and purpose broadly, there would be enough substance that we can craft our arguments to show the rationality of our responses within that institutional “ethic.”
I shall get off my high horse, but I don’t want the difficulties for credentialing clinical ethics consultants to erode the positive contributions made in clinical ethics by our committees.
Does this make sense?
Labels: medical ethics