8 Feb, 11 | by Iain Brassington
“I’ve never read a more outrageous job advert,” says a colleague’s Facebook update, in reference to this from Georgetown University.
Georgetown University is seeking outstanding candidates for the position of Director of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center (CCB). The CCB Director will report directly to the Medical Center’s chief executive officer, the Executive Vice-President for Health Sciences and Executive Dean of the Georgetown University School of Medicine. The Director will ideally possess an MD or equivalent medical training with additional graduate training in theology and/or philosophy. The Director must have an international reputation for scholarly and professional achievements, along with a strong commitment to the advancement of the humane, theological, philosophical and ethical dimensions of medicine. The Director should command the respect of peers from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds, demonstrate dedication to interdisciplinary, inter-religious and cross-cultural dialogue, possess a deep knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition of medical ethics and a commitment to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, and be a strong advocate of and spokesperson for the Catholic/Jesuit tradition in healthcare.
I’m not sure it’s as outrageous as all that, and the ad does go on to say that
Georgetown University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action employer, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, marital status, veteran status or disability.
The not discriminating according to religion bit is a bit curious, admittedly – I mean, I’ll accept that a Hindu could carry out a role that involves advocacy “for the Catholic/Jesuit tradition in healthcare”*; but a Catholic is likely to have an advantage on this front. (And what is it with veterans? I know that Americans take the military Very Seriously Indeed; but, really – it’s just a job, albeit a job with abnormally high levels of shouting.)
But there is a couple of further questions that the ad raises, albeit short of causing outrage.
For one thing, it’s not clear exactly why being a medic first and an ethicist second is the ideal ordering of things. I know that there’re plenty of medics who turn out to be very good ethicists, but their being good ethicists doesn’t depend – as far as I can tell – on their having been a medic.** I’ve mentioned before that there is a problem with defining what a bioethicist should be. But I think that a background in philosophy is, and ought to be, a big component of being an ethicist. Naturally, a bioethicist ought to be at least capable of understanding roughly what the science can do – but what makes an ethicist an ethicist is an ability to reason about practical matters; there’s no more need to be able to participate in those practices and have a detailed understanding of them than there is for a music critic to have mastered every instrument in the orchestra (or any of them) or even to be able to read music. And yet the ad doesn’t specify that the successful applicant will be a philosopher at all; ideally, the successful candidate will have some postgrad philosophy experience – but that seems to be an aspiration rather than a stipulation.
What puzzles me further, though, is the sense of priority. The people who drafted the ad clearly thought that being a medic was the most important area of experience – OK, I’ll let them have that for the moment – and then moved to theology, and only after that does philosophy get a look in. And that’s something that I really don’t understand. I genuinely don’t understand what theology can offer to ethics. Theological ethics tends, as far as I can see, simply to collapse into an argument from authority – either “Do this because an invisible man says so”, or “Do this because a man with a beard and a hotline to an invisible man says so”. But the belief in the invisible man is not obviously morally important – the idea that speculation about the nature and existence of a divinity can tell us anything morally useful was definitively exploded by Plato two and a half millennia ago, in the Euthyphro: it’s not recovered from that blow, and I’m not expecting it to soon - and if you take the invisible man out of it, you’re left with either philosophy of a higher or lower quality, or a bit of a mess.
Not so long ago, I was at an ethics workshop at which a number of theologians spoke about theological bioethics. These were theologians from big, venerable universities from all over Europe, so I’m assuming that they were among the best in their field. And yet what they said was either nothing that could not be said by a philosopher, or nothing that would be said by a philosopher because it was basically mystical fluff. This is a reflection of other attempts at ethics that I’ve seen from theologians: they’re just like philosophers, except – let’s be brutal – not as good.
I know that religion thinks that it’s a source of moral authority; but what’s truly bizarre is that so many people accept this. (Granted, theology and religion aren’t the same, but the former does rather presuppose the latter…) Indeed, outside of academia, there seems to be a perception that you can’t have a moral argument without at least inviting a religious perspective. I don’t understand why. (Have you noticed that the BBC runs religion and ethics programming together, as though they go fit as naturally as beer and regret? I feel an open letter coming on…)
If anyone could explain to me (a) exactly what can be brought to the table by theologians that cannot be brought by anyone else, and (b) why this something is worth having, I’d appreciate it. My hunch is the answer to (a) is “Very little, if anything”, and to (b) is “It really isn’t”. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe someone can correct me. But I’ve not come across a compelling reason to change my mind yet; and in the absence of one, quite why Georgetown places theology higher than philosophy on its list of priorities for an ethics gig is – at best – puzzling.
Now, do you think I’ve got a chance with the job?
**I don’t want to appear to blow my own trumpet here, but I reckon I’m at least a passable ethicist, and I have no medical education at all. Hell, I have practically no scientific education: my GCSE physics teacher spent most of 18 months’ worth of lessons telling a long, deeply involved and ultimately moving shaggy-dog story about an octopus and a set of bagpipes, and my biological knowledge goes no further than making potato-prints.