As I have been saying in recent blogs, most of what we do in clinical ethics, but also in most areas of bioethics, is procedural ethics. That is when we are faced with an ethical dilemma, our approach, whether consciously or unconsciously is usually to try to reach a reasonable compromise or consensus among the key participants that are in conflict consistent with well-established values and principles. This tendency reflects an obvious reality about the nature of contemporary ethics that we often ignore: in the current Western moral setting, our only viable methodology for resolving value laden disputes, whether at the micro level in clinical ethics or macro level in healthcare policy, is to attempt to craft an agreement or consensus among those with a say. Whether we are dealing with patients and families at odds with their physician on how to define the goals of care in the hospital setting or trying to build a consensus of opinion among voters in the political arena, we assume there are no final, authoritative moral answers that avail themselves to us. Whether we like it or not, we humans must figure out ethical dilemmas for ourselves and learn to get along.
Yet the idea of procedural ethics remains very worrisome for many people, including such bioethicists and Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. He believes that procedural ethics, such much of what we do in clinical ethics, is not really ethics in because it is based on convention and legalistic type standards. For him ethics worthy of the name must flow from a content-rich, canonical moral tradition that provides moral authority to our everyday ethical and moral judgments. The prototype ethical tradition was the medieval Christian Natural Law perspective grounded in Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle assumed the inherent order and intelligibility of the cosmos, which also permeated his understanding of ethics. Humans, like all natural things, had a natural function, which was to be rational. But rational did not mean to that ethics was about finding intellectual or theoretical basis for right action according to rational rules in order to know and perform one’s duty—this was Kant’s (1724-1804) ethics during the 18th century following the rise of modern science. For Aristotle, the question was, how can one live and embody the good life; so rationality in this sense meant internal harmony between emotions and decision-making that resulted in well-established habits or states of character. This means finding in all of one’s activities the balance between excess and deficiency, or what he called the “mean”. Over time, forming the right habits according to the mean in all areas of life lead to excellence and happiness or what he called the good life. This was the natural fulfillment of the human function in practical terms consistent with the ancient Aristotelian.
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