Synergy in theoretical and practical ethics

I am fascinated by moral philosophy. This is partly because an introduction to ethical theory provided me with a life-altering “Aha!” moment, and partly because the discipline is one of the purest expressions of pure thought divorced from “linguistic turn” esoterica that contemporary philosophy still permits.

I got a significant way through an M.A. in philosophy, with a concentration in theoretical and practical ethics, before I stopped taking classes two years ago. My reasons for leaving the university were many, but a big part of it revolved around my discomfort with my perceived ability to function well within the graduate program.

I had been assured by one of the faculty that I was in great shape relative to my fellow grad students, but I had my doubts. Classes were filled with people making references to ideas and people I had never before encountered. It seemed that every assigned reading assumed that the reader was already conversant in moral theory. In short: It was frustrating. I’m not dumb, but I felt as if I wasn’t prepared for the experience.

A year and a half have elapsed since I last stepped foot in a classroom. In that time, I’ve become the secretary of my hospital’s biomedical ethics committee and I’ve been accepted to deliver a presentation on quality and ethics at this fall’s annual educational conference for the National Association for Healthcare Quality.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading more. Trying to get a better understanding of the “lay of the land” for moral philosophy.

And I’ve come to a conclusion — Dr. Pritchard was right. I am better prepared than I realized. I’ve learned a few things:

1. That many of the arcane tangents raised by other grad students amounted to little more than B.S. — no one wants to publicly admit to not knowing something, so people “invent” things, or proceed from wildly defective memories of something encountered briefly in the past, about which no one (including most professors) are willing to challenge them.

2. That intellectual rigor in philosophy, as in much of the social sciences, is in sharp decline. As such, expectations on what someone SHOULD know differs greatly from he is REQUIRED to know. And that’s a shame; no good will come of this trend.

3. That publish-or-perish syndrome is leading to an increasing specialization within the social sciences such that everyone can be an expert in his very own little corner of the discipline. This permits a greater degree of false authority than is healthy for free and sustained debate. Perhaps I’m biased, being more of a generalist by disposition, but I’m not sure that a thousand little experts is necessarily the right way to go.

These points aside, my foray into practical ethics through the hospital and NAHQ are strengthening my understand about the challenges of reconciling theoretical and practical ethics in the real world.

I am approaching healthcare quality and bioethics from the perspective of someone trained academically in moral philosophy but who has no formal training in quality or in medicine. Yet most of those “doing” ethics in these fields are quality professionals or licensed clinicians who lack formal training in moral philosophy. The experience of seeing their dabbling in my discipline, mixed with my dabbling in their disciplines, suggests interesting pedagogical opportunities within philosophy.

I’ve already written about my concerns about some of the ethics quality stuff I’ve seen from the American Society for Quality and other groups. Perhaps I was too uncharitable. After all, moral philosophy is sufficiently important that it ought not be the exclusive domain of academicians; better to have superficial ethics by non-professionals than to hope that the professionals will descend from the tower long enough to instruct the masses.

I think, though, that serious moral philosophers face a dilemma. Much of the work of practical ethics is being advanced by those with little or no formal instruction in moral philosophy. The situation is analogous to what might happen of the nation’s auto mechanics all retreated to vocational skills centers and left the work of car repair to metaphysicians who manage to get by on a wing and a prayer. If the cause of effective and non-superficial moral reasoning is to be advanced among non-philosophers, then the philosophers need to do a better job of getting out their seminar rooms and offices to help the people. Because the people seem to be drowning, despite their best intentions.

This 18-month-odyssey has renewed my desire to complete my M.A. and push for a greater and more nuanced understanding of the basics of moral philosophy by those who struggle with ethical problems in the real world.

It’s good to have a sense of purpose. 🙂

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