Ethical Codes: Moving beyond autonomy

Ethical theories can be divided in a number of ways, but one easy way is to separate the rule-based theories from theories that are not rule based. If you happen to be writing a code of ethics for your organization, you are going to drift toward rule-based theories because, in fact, you are writing a set of rules. These rules are important to ensure and protect the professionalism of your organization or profession. Ethical codes, made up of rules, establish a system of accountability for your members. Ethical codes are useful and often essential for professional organizations and vocational fields.

The rules in professional codes tend, whether stated or not, to focus on autonomy as begging devildefined by Immanuel Kant. His advice is generally interpreted somewhat loosely to say that we should only do to others what they have chosen to have done to them and use them only in ways that help them achieve their own ends. We should not use others only as a way to achieve our personal goals.

Based on this thinking, we would only provide people with treatment after receiving their fully informed consent, we would use people in our research only if they wanted to participate, and we would always be honest with clients and work in their best interest. Some would be a little shocked by the full implications of Kant’s views. For example, to have sex without the intent to procreate is to use both yourself and your partner as a mere means to pleasure. Lying to a murderer in order to save a child’s life would lead to you being charged with a crime in the event of the child’s death.

When it comes to integrating ethics into your professional practice, however, you may find rule-based systems too limiting and seek a theory that feels more inclusive of your entire professional life. It may help to look at two other groups of ethical theories: 1. Theories that focus on what kind of person to be. 2. Theories that focus on how to relate to others. This isn’t a neat division as these two types of theories overlap in significant ways, but it can be a useful starting point.

Virtue Ethics

Friedrich Nietzsche rejected rule-based systems of morality, which he referred to as forms of “slave-morality,” for morality aimed at character, which he called “master-morality.” He said, “It is obvious that moral value distinctions everywhere are first attributed to people and only later to actions.” For Nietzsche, it is the powerful who will see moral behavior as a by-product of being a great person while the weak will seek moral rules to protect their interests from others. Nietzsche suggests we should all strive to become great people rather than subjecting ourselves to the rules and will of others.

In a similar vein, Aristotle saw morality as a process of becoming a good person rather than following a set of rules, though he did say that things like theft, adultery and murder are always wrong, allowing for the existence of some moral rules. In general, though, a person becomes good, not by following rules, but by developing a virtuous disposition. This approach does emphasize activities, as it is through our actions that we develop our character. By choosing the actions a good person would choose, we become a good person, and by being a good person we tend to choose actions that are also good.

Relational Ethics

If you work with people on a regular basis, you may find a theory based on relationships conducive to moving beyond rule-based systems and ethical codes.

In the past, I didn’t really think of existentialism as a good foundation for a relational ethics as many existentialists focus on subjective experience, but Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” changed my mind. Beauvoir specifically tackles the problem of making ethical choices in an ambiguous world. Contrary to Immanuel Kant, she says it is not possible to arrive at certain rules to guide our behavior, but this does not mean we can shirk our obligation to act with concern for others.

Beauvoir says we experience life through our own experience by exercising our own freedom, but we do not experience it in isolation. If we do experience it in isolation, she says, “The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Our authentic self is expressed through free acts, but “[The individual] exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.” Though our actions can’t be pinned down by a set of rules, we find meaning in life by seeking, willing, and nurturing the freedom of others in the world. In a sense, our affirmation of freedom is an exclamation of love.

Love may not seem an appropriate emotion to mention in a discussion of ethical relations with clients, but we don’t have to think of it in romantic or sexual terms. Love may be a matter of valuing others. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that love is an essential feature of a liberal democracy. Some might quibble over how she defines love, but certainly it is a concern for others that drives both the ethics and political struggles of some of us. For example, she notes that we all live in a state of dependency at one time or another (childhood, old age if we are lucky to live long enough, and periods of impairment). Some of us live in states of dependency for our entire lives. Protecting the dignity of all requires us to recognize the value in others, and love for others is sufficient motivation to remove the shame and stigma of dependency. Our concern for others motivates our most basic moral impulses.

In this sense, both Beauvoir’s and Nussbaum’s views can be seen as forms of an ethics of care. If you are familiar with care ethics, though, you probably heard of it through the work of feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. Care ethics was introduced as an alternative to theories seen to value men’s experiences over women’s. Feminists pointed out that women’s experiences have largely centered on care. Some will say caring is natural to women and others will say women have been forced into caring roles.

Over time, care ethics has become somewhat less gendered, meaning both men and women may recognize the value of care in their ethical lives. Noddings says our moral obligations arise between the “one-caring” and the “cared-for.” The response of the “cared-for” drive our actions. The most debilitating kind of existence, she says, is to care for someone who is unable or unwilling to respond to care. Controversially, she says, “We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other.” This means are have no obligations to “the needy in the far regions of the earth.” Philosopher James Rachels objects, saying, “A more sensible approach might be to say that the ethical life includes both caring personal relationships and a benevolent concern for people generally.”

Some philosophers see narrative ethics as a logical extension of an ethics of care. Narrative ethics emphasizes the role of stories in our moral lives. Most of us grew up hearing “didactic stories” about foxes and wolves and so forth that left us to learn “the moral of the story.” This is an important feature of narrative ethics but stories need not be didactic to aid our moral reasoning or impulses. We may also learn from both fiction and true personal narratives.

Fiction can help us broaden our imagination of what life is like for others. It helps us to understand feelings and motivations outside our own experience. It gives us a way of testing different points of view and outlooks. Similarly, listening to or reading the accounts people give of their own lives gives us greater insight into their emotional lives and helps us to develop an empathetic response. Our moral obligations and intuitions look quite different when we are better able to “read” the minds and motivations of others. Those who work intimately with clients on a regular basis are immersed in their stories. In this sense, ethics is integral to the practice. I personally think it is helpful to think of ethics as being embedded in our work rather than a separate function that requires attention outside of our “real job.”

Again, autonomy plays an essential role in developing ethical codes of behavior. If we fail to respect the autonomy of others, we violate them in ways that are always wrong and often illegal. Still, other ethical approaches can expand the role of ethics in our practice and help us pursue ethics that really is beyond mere compliance.

Our Bodies, Ourselves and the birth of bioethics

The first works of academic bioethics I read were by notables such as Peter Singer, James Rachels, and Bonnie Steinbock, but that is not where my interest in bioethics actually began. In the 1980s, I ran across the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and I was immediately captivated by the book and the movement it represented, even if I wasn’t part of the particular movement.

The book began as an outgrowth of the feminist movement when 12 women met in 1969 to discuss their experiences with doctors. They began compiling and disseminating their stories and information to empower women to take charge of their own healthcare decisions. Bioethics as a professional field developed in the 1970s, but the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves were ahead of professional bioethicists by a few years. In 1970, these authors released a booklet titled “Women and Their Bodies.” While professional bioethicists focused on the role of autonomy in healthcare, these women were creating autonomy by giving women information and the courage to take charge of their own healthcare. You can read more about the history here.

At the time these women met, abortion was illegal and most doctors were male. As the authors explained in the preface to the first edition of the book, “we wanted to do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and noninformative.” To combat the attitudes they found common in doctors, they presented information on birth control, abortion, menstruation, masturbation, and sexuality in frank and shame-free language. As a outcome of the approach, they said, “Our image of ourselves is on a firmer base, we can be better friends and better lovers, better people, more self-confident, more autonomous, stronger and more whole.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves, the book, continues to be published (now in more than two-dozen languages), and the organization, Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), continues as a nonprofit organization promulgating information on girls’ and women’s health and sexuality. Their efforts now extend globally through the Our Bodies Ourselves Global Initiative (OBOGI).

These women approached bioethics from the ground up and changed the world.

This is how I feel bioethics should be conducted for the greatest impact. Patients, ideally, should drive the focus of bioethics and inform both ethicists and healthcare providers of what issues are important. The only way for this to happen is for patients to tell their stories of how they experienced healthcare, medicine, illness, and even death.

To that end, I am inviting patients to submit their own stories of illness and medicine to Ethics Beyond Compliance. If you would like to submit a story related to your experience of illness (either as a patient or as a caregiver) or grief, please send it to me. I will have a story coming up in the next few days, but I hope to make it a regular feature of the blog.

See also: O is for Our Bodies, Ourselves