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June 26, 2014 | Posted By Michael Brannigan, PhD

Ethics here, ethics there, ethics nearly everywhere. Welcome to the world of hyphenated ethics: business-ethics, medical, environmental, media, sports, advertising, legal, even military-ethics. With ethics commissions, committees, councils, consultants, certificates, etc., ethics is big business. Just about anyone can claim to be an "ethicist," a term I decried years ago.

Who are these "ethicists"? What qualifies to be one? In my field, health care ethics, the stakes are high. Recommendations regarding right, wrong, and in-between can be matters of life and death. While ethicists disclaim moral expertise, their views carry weight in bureaucratic institutions. We expect them to be competent in the demanding task of moral analysis, with in-depth experience and interpersonal skills.

But are they?

Take "bioethics." "Bioethicists" serve on government commissions, hospital ethics committees, and Institutional Review Boards; they work as clinical ethics consultants, and help develop medical programs like our Albany Medical Center's Alden March Bioethics Institute, where I teach Intercultural Bioethics. When issues make headlines, media solicit ethicists' comments. As vice president for organizational and clinical ethics at Kansas City's Center for Practical Bioethics, I was trained to deliver "talking points" when asked to comment. Hard-wired as a philosopher, I resist reducing complex issues to sound-bites.

In their landmark 2007 study of 600 hospitals, U.S. Veterans Affairs ethics officer Ellen Fox and colleagues discovered 45 percent of clinical ethics consultants surveyed lacked formal training and only 5 percent completed a graduate program or fellowship in bioethics. Even after the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities devised "core competencies" for clinical ethics consultants, Alden March director Bruce White rightly wonders whether these standards are adequate. His colleague philosopher Wayne Shelton agrees, saying "many ethics consultants still do not have sufficient training."

For instance, to ensure morally sound protocol that protects research subjects IRBs must remain independent of those conducting studies. For-profit IRBs often promise quick, review of studies. With hefty financial incentives to satisfy customers, are these IRBs really ethics committees?

In his must-read for budding ethicists, "White Coat, Black Hat,'' University of Minnesota's Carl Elliott exposes unsavory ties between bioethics and the drug industry, citing revealing cases of industries paying ethicists to review their products, like Pfizer paying University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan to help "ethically" market Viagra. As Elliott writes, "each corporate check cashed takes us one step closer to the notion of ethics as a commodity, a series of canned lectures, white papers, and consultation services to be purchased by the highest bidder".

Bioethics illustrates a cottage industry where ethicists come in different stripes. How qualified are they? While publications and ethics conferences abound, how many papers and abstracts undergo careful peer-review? Numerous academics have shared tales of their paying heavy conference fees only to hear poorly argued, unprepared, and repetitious presentations.

What does it mean to be an expert in ethics? A deeper issue concerns professional humility. How do we present ourselves? How do we use our knowledge?

I challenge the integrity of the ethics business. Ethics is in danger of losing its moral footing of rigorous learning, moral analysis, critical reasoning, and, self-examination. The unexamined examiner is not worth heeding.

To see more of Dr. Brannigan's work, go to http://www.timesunion.com/brannigan.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit ourĀ website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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