The Ethics of Professional Ethics

When I was defending my dissertation a few years ago, a committee member asked me how I would respond to a tobacco company who asked me to advise them on the most ethical ways to harvest tobacco grown on farms in South America. I first answered, honestly, that I couldn’t imagine working for a tobacco company, but then I added that the only advice I could think of would be to choose a more ethical product in the first place and then worry about fair treatment of workers, protection of the environment, and so on.

It would, of course, be difficult to make a living as a professional ethicist if you simply Briberyadvised all your clients to go out of business. Accepting a paying job creates a financial conflict of interest from the beginning. If you want to keep your job, you will immediately know the parameters of your possible advice. In the worst case, you will simply be giving rubber-stamp approval to the activities of your boss. In the extreme case of a tobacco company, this conflict may be clear, but other conflicts are much less obvious.

The best problem for an ethicist to have, I think, would be an opportunity to work for a company or organizations with the same goals and values of the ethicist. It would make sense for a vegan ethicist to want to work for a company that sells cruelty-free products. If the company hired an ethicist to determine what practices ere ethical, it would be a perfect situation, but this is a case of an organization seeking out an ethicist whose conclusions are already known. This is hardly an ethics consultation. And just to vary the scenario a little, it is unlikely that a Catholic-owned organization is going to want to hire an ethicists who does not believe in the sanctity of life just as an organization providing contraception services would not want to hire a Catholic ethicists. If you can simply shop for an ethicist who agrees with your actions beforehand, there is no point in hiring an ethicist.

In some cases, companies really do want to seek expert advice on how to proceed on various products and actions. They seek out, naturally, ethicists who share their overall values but have additional training and demonstrated expertise in evaluating ethical quandaries. When helping some one choose between X and Y, ethicists can make a fairly objective evaluation, given that neither choice is presented as the preferred choice. Rather than “Have we been ethical?” the organization is asking, “Which of these two choices is the most ethical way to proceed?” In this case, asking more than one ethicist would seem advisable. Then, the organization is still responsible for its decision, but it is based on more (and more nuanced) information. Still, it is possible for people to use the ethicist for moral cover (“Hey, the ethicist said it is ok, so there!). Providing moral cover for your employer is just never going to look good.

Ethicists can proceed, though, by offering a thorough analysis without necessarily giving a green light to any particular action. With so much training behind them, ethicists should be well prepared to answer questions about agency, autonomy, rights along with background information on previous cases and debates. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time a new problem arises.

The professional ethicist can help with questions such as:

  • What are violations of autonomy?
    Is autonomy the only concern?
    What is the importance of narrative in moral decision-making?
    Do men and women operate with different moral frameworks?
    What are moral agents?
    Who is (or should be) of moral concern?
    What is the importance of virtue in organizational ethics?
    Is care necessarily part of ethical deliberation?
    What are positive and negative rights?
    Which moral choices are obligatory and which are supererogatory?
    What is the difference between human rights, human development, and human capabilities?
    Who is responsible for justice?
    Must ethical decisions be impartial (do family and friends matter more)?

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