Should ethicists give advice?

Politicians and authorities consult ethics commissions about moral issues such as euthanasia, pre-implantation diagnostics, and gene technology in agriculture. Is it legitimate for ethicists to give answers to such questions as if they were scientists?

(From "Horizons" no. 106, September)
Image:© Valérie Chételat

When ethics commissions advise parliament, the Federal Council and other authorities, they don’t do so unprompted, but on a sound legal basis. Ethics reports are the result of official commissions. One important reason for consulting the opinion of ethicists is that ethical issues are raised in politicised areas such as medicine, the environment and data protection. It would simply be unwise to commission expert opinions from scientists, lawyers and economists, but not ethicists.

When an expert opinion is requested, we’re asked to give both a careful analysis of the state of debate and our own recommendations. Politicians don’t just need a summary of the literature to make their decisions; it’s also helpful for them to know what their experts and commissions think is the right course of action. Why should ethicists and ethics commissions ignore this very aspect of their consultancy mandate? There’s no reason for it.

A sound ethical recommendation contains the arguments for and against one of the options on the table. These are assessed and judged on the basis of their respective strengths. As a result, there are better reasons for recommending certain possibilities than there are for others. So reasoned recommendations may be given.

Yet it’s not just about whether we "can", but whether we "may". If ethical questions are answered unambiguously – such as saying, "sperm donation should be permitted for unmarried heterosexual couples", then it is tantamount to handing out a moral directive. But by their very nature, recommendations and advice are not directives. Politicians and authorities are free to reject the reasons laid out before them and to refuse the recommendation.

To issue such imperatives would mean entering the realm of morality, not ethics. In ethics, like in the sciences, demonstrable reasons must be presented as to why one particular answer is supposedly the right one. If this is done, then the people involved are in a position to consider the reasons given and, if they wish, to reject them. And even if they do agree with those reasons, they are still free to reject the recommendation, whether it’s because they wish to place an emphasis on something else, because they have considered additional aspects of the case, or because they have reached a different opinion after examining the arguments submitted.

When ethical recommendations are made following a transparent process, then everyone is served: it takes the discourse forward, and leads to better decisions.

A couple has to decide what to do when a pregnancy screening reveals an anomaly. They ask friends for advice, including an ethicist. Should they take the ethicist’s opinion particularly seriously – more seriously, let’s say, than the opinion of a friend who already has a child with trisomy 21?

"No", is my opinion as an ethicist. And I remain sceptical even when it’s not individuals wanting to solve an ethical dispute, but society as a whole, as it were, appointing an ethicist to a committee of experts. If a problem has a moral dimension, I believe it affects ethicists not just as "experts", but also as human beings.
Whether or not a specific drug will work is something that an expert can judge better than a layperson. But whether pre-implantation diagnoses are inadmissibly injurious to the dignity of an embryo is not a question that could be answered authoritatively by the newest research into the moral status of prenatal life. Real ethical disagreements can’t be solved by expert knowledge.

What is right and good is that ethicists don’t leave this field to all those stakeholders
and other experts who are keen to suppress the moral dimensions of a problem. That’s why one of the principal duties of ethicists is to fight in such commissions against all attempts to reduce ethical conflicts to mere technical or empirical questions.

But the fact remains: if an ethicist has something important and just to say about an ethical question, then it’s not because he’s an academic expert, it’s because he has a disciplined engagement with ethical issues that has allowed him to give a more differentiated, wiser opinion. Furthermore, he should have maintained a sense of independence and freedom of thought that should not be mistaken for ideological neutrality. What matters is not a theoretical knowledge of ethics, which can be academically tested, but a moral power of judgement that one acquires in the never-ending process of self-formation.

Ethicists shouldn’t act as a last port of call, as if society were a quiz show and the ethicist were the friend sitting at home by the telephone, waiting for a contestant to use one of his "jokers" and ring up for an answer. It’s neither the duty of ethicists nor in their competence to solve ethical conflicts in a manner that both salves consciences and remains impersonal. They have to make explicit how they see things, in the knowledge that others – experts and laypersons alike – might see things very differently. In ethics, that’s not the result of a lack of expertise, but in fact the very proof of it.