Are bioethicists more ethical than the rest of us? I’m not aware of data about bioethicists as such. However, some research has been published about moral philosophers, of which bioethics is a sub-discipline. One study found that ethics texts were more likely to be missing from academic libraries than non-ethics books in philosophy.
A couple of other studies found that ethicists behaved no more courteously than non-ethicists and that they were just as likely to avoid paying registration fees as non-ethicists at conferences of the American Philosophical Association. And last year, the world was shattered by the scandalous news that moral philosophers were no more likely to respond to student emails than other kinds of philosophers.
It is a bit disappointing to learn that bioethicists probably land in the middle of the Bell curve in terms of everyday ethical behaviour. But do they still have special ethical obligations? An interesting article in the latest issue of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics argues that they do. Bioethicists are supposed to be whistleblowers.
D. Robert MacDougall, of New York City College of Technology, argues that they have “a heightened obligation to whistleblow”. Not because bioethicists are obliged by virtue of their professional training to be saints – they aren’t. But because “the condition of that employment is the widely held supposition that bioethicists do not ultimately defer to an employer’s determination about acceptable risks, but rather that they exercise independent judgment on these matters”.
In other words, society expects that bioethicists will make up their minds without fear or favour.
Does this actually happen? Dr MacDougall references a 1996 article in the Journal of Clinical Ethics, “Where are the heroes of bioethics?” The author’s opening sentence was “Here is my problem: I don’t know of a single case of a bioethicist who has acted as a hero in that role.” Have things changed since then? Are there any nominations for bioethical heroes, people who have risked life, limb or employment to fulfil their responsibilities?