August 3, 2011 | Posted By Michael Brannigan, PhD

What comes to mind when we think of ethics?

Problem-solving? Decision-making? Pondering, "What is the right thing to do"? "How am I to act"?

Herein lies the persistent hazard for ethics, particularly as an institutionalized field: its near-obsession with "the problem."

To explain, I first offer two senses of ethics. First, it is the formal philosophy and theology discipline that I've been trained in, together with other humanities and science courses. Second, it is an applied field, like my work in health care ethics, and more thoroughly institutionalized.

It has burgeoned through numerous academic and professional ethics centers, journals, graduate programs and consultancies including hospitals, businesses, law, environmental groups, research centers and government commissions.

Precisely in this latter sense, ethics is now big business as it tackles hot topics and problems. For instance, bioethics focuses more on headline issues spawned by richer nations' biomedical technologies (embryonic stem cell research, reproductive cloning, nanotechnologies and neuroethics, for example) and, regrettably, less on poorer populations' plight of poverty, hunger, health disparities and violence.

One reason is that so-called ethicists (a term I resist if "ethicist" refers to a "moral expert") are often employed by institutions from which they must, of necessity compelled by their discipline, maintain a critical, impartial distance. Yet, they risk becoming "team players" when their institution sets their agenda, and pre-selected predicaments become moral cargo.

I call this fixation with predicaments "Baywatch ethics," focusing primarily on the crisis whereby the "ethicist," scouring protected area, stands ready to rescue victims.

At its best, Baywatch ethics is minimalist, superficial and shallow. If we limit the scope of ethics to "doing the right thing," we merely crawl on the surface. Ethics, in my first sense above, requires that we dive deeper into the deep sea of moral character, circumstance and conduct.

In his timeless "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle's chief concern was not in resolving specific perplexities, but in how we should live our lives, giving us a broader vision of what constitutes for us the pursuit of what is good through cultivating good character. Aristotle's point: Doing and being co-exist.

University of Texas at Austin philosopher Edmund Pincoffs offers us a straightforward formula in his "Quandaries and Virtues." Doing the right thing requires a sound level of moral reasoning; moral reasoning assumes some degree of moral character; moral character entails the habitual practice of virtue. University of Auckland philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse elaborates further in her elegant analysis "On Virtue Ethics."

To illustrate, given digital communication's immediacy, ease, face-to-face absence and anonymity, children and adolescents particularly encounter the perils of cyber-bullying and online rudeness. By focusing solely on fixing the problem via proscriptions, "thou shalt nots" and school guidelines, we commit a moral failure in merely treating the symptom.

Youth must first recognize that these are problems. Pincoffs reminds us, "There are no moral problems for the child whose character is yet to be formed."

Recognizing something as problematic presupposes some degree of moral character. The real challenge in ethics education lies in instilling ideals of good character and learning virtues early on.

This is the aim behind Doane Stuart teachers Patty and Seamus Hodgkinson's pioneering "Just Kidding" Middle School program that confronts cyber-bullying and incivility by addressing their roots through instilling and encouraging good character.

Surely, attending to problems is necessary to engage us in the complexities of ethics. Yet when we downplay character, when we reduce ethics to mere doing and decision-making, ethics becomes fluff, solely a matter of compliance, following rules, a cocoon of "as long as it's legal."

Ethics, ultimately about refusing to turn away from others and their afflictions, hinges upon who we are and who we become through what we do. This means redirecting our gaze from the skin of conduct to looking deeper within ourselves.

To see more of Dr. Brannigan's work, go to

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.


2 comments | Topics: Bioethics in the Media , Ethics and Morality , Philosophy , Religion


sheila otto

sheila otto wrote on 08/04/11 11:04 AM

I guess I am a Baywatch babe...although I don't disagree with the serious plea of being comprehensive in analysis, in the acute care setting, decisions must be made in a very limited time frame. Reasonable, "ethical" persons can and often do disagree. I see the training in bioethics as a tool kit for formulating a sound plan of pt. care based on a sound foundation of ethical principles and yes, legal restrictions. The discipline of bioethics takes the disagreement from the "opinion" level to one of supporting a particular path for the following reasons...I would also offer that morality is different from ethics. The first is a choice between right and wrong and the latter is often a choice between two not so wonderful options neither of which may be absolutely right or wrong.
Richard R. Pesce

Richard R. Pesce wrote on 08/24/11 6:59 PM

I do think the greater understanding of Dr. Brannigan's stance points to the need of having people in the field who have cultivated good character and see the way through virtue ethics, by in the field I am talking of those who are caring for the person involved in th ethical problem. The selection of these people needs to improve (medical students and residents and their parallels in nursing). This would mean that those who would ask for ethics input would themselves have benefited from the study and practice of virtue ethics. This is lacking in most who now apply and have matriculated in the field. After all Aristotle did say that " We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is a habit, not a virtue." It is through the practice of excellence that virtue allows us to achieve. So it appears to me that those who practice clinical bioethics should first run the gauntlet of clinical exposure to the best of their abilities prior to giving analysis, opinion, or recommendation of options that are among themselves not wonderful choices.

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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.