October 6, 2022

Are bioethicists bioethical?

ome philosophers have their doubts

Here’s a bit of fun for professional bioethicists. A forthcoming paper in the philosophy journal Mind discusses the ethics of ethicists and comes up with some rather dismal conclusions. Two American philosophers lured 277 passers-by at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association into filling out a survey. (They used chocolate as bait, which may have biased the results.) This allowed them to compare the moral behaviour of ethicists to the moral behaviour of philosophers not specializing in ethics and to non-academics of similar social background.

The majority of respondents felt that ethicists do not behave better than non-ethicists. Naturally, ethicists themselves were more optimistic. While they tended to avoid saying that ethicists behave worse than non-ethicists, non-ethicists were evenly split. About half felt that ethicists behaved worse, and half better. The authors found this disturbing:

"We would like to think that… moral reflection and philosophical ethics, done well, can positively affect one’s own behaviour, and can be valuable for their tendency to point the person who reflects toward the good. If empirical inquiry eventually reveals, instead, that philosophical moral reflection is personally inert or even harmful, many of us will have to rethink our assumptions about moral psychology, moral education, and the role of reflectiveness in the morally good life."

Michael Cook