In Defence of Ethicists (Or: Dr No’s no-no)

If you look at the comments thread in the post about Kerrie Wooltorton, you’ll see that there’s been an interesting debate between me and someone who calls himself “Dr No”.  I don’t think that No and I will ever see eye-to-eye on quite a lot of stuff, but, then again, I don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things with the people whose offices are on the same corridor as mine, so there’s no surprise there.

Anyway – there’s a link to No’s own blog in one of the comments, and it, should you follow it, it’ll take you here.  You know the aphorism about pictures being able to represent a thousand words?  Here’s a picture:

……………………………………..________
………………………………,.-‘”……………….“~.,
………………………..,.-”……………………………..“-.,
…………………….,/………………………………………..”:,
…………………,?………………………………………………\,
………………./…………………………………………………..,}
……………../………………………………………………,:`^`..}
……………/……………………………………………,:”………/
…………..?…..__…………………………………..:`………../
…………./__.(…..“~-,_…………………………,:`………./
………../(_….”~,_……..“~,_………………..,:`…….._/
……….{.._$;_……”=,_…….“-,_…….,.-~-,},.~”;/….}
………..((…..*~_…….”=-._……“;,,./`…./”…………../
…,,,___.\`~,……“~.,………………..`…..}…………../
…………(….`=-,,…….`……………………(……;_,,-”
…………/.`~,……`-………………………….\……/\
………….\`~.*-,……………………………….|,./…..\,__
,,_……….}.>-._\……………………………..|…………..`=~-,
…..`=~-,_\_……`\,……………………………\
……………….`=~-,,.\,………………………….\
…………………………..`:,,………………………`\…………..__
……………………………….`=-,……………….,%`–==“
…………………………………._\……….._,-%…….`\
……………………………..,<`.._|_,-&“…………….`\

The post makes a couple of unwarranted jibes at lawyers in respect of the Wooltorton case, one being that they’re keeping quiet because they know they’ve got the law wrong.  This is false on both counts.  Lawyers are not keeping quiet – it’s just that there’s no real legal point to be argued.  And that tells us the other thing: the law hasn’t been got wrong.  But I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not to fussed about No’s attack on them.

Nor am I a doctor, so I’m not going to take issue with this claim:

The doctors are a divided camp. Some hold that their duty is to save life, and sod the law if it is at odds with this sacred duty, while others are of a more menial mind, and hold that the law is sacred, and sod the patient if the law demands that the patient should die.

– except to point out that British law hasn’t said that anyone should die since 1964.  What it has said is that it’s sometimes wrong to prevent a death.  But that is not the same by a long way.

What really rankles about No’s post is what he has to say about ethicists.  I’ll quote at length here, albeit removing a bit of stuff for the sake of clarity.

And then there are the ethicists, with their argument and debate, and absence of conclusion, who all the while sow their malicious seeds of mischievous doubt.

Now, the first thing to note is that is that two of the main groups – lawyers and ethicists – are trained in the arts of argument and debate. Doctors, on the other hand, are not. One might suppose, therefore, that the doctors are at a disadvantage, and indeed they are; at least this one feels he is. Lawyers have a habit of tripping up doctors, and so Dr No is being careful where he treads.

The ethicists, on the other hand, appear to be playing a different game, a game of skirmishes on shifting sands, of shimmering chimeras, and arguments being popped out from behind bushes. As philosophers, they have mastered the unmasterable, and penetrated the impenetrable. They have even got their heads round the ideas of the likes of Kant and Heidegger, which enables them to explode the occasional deontological bomb when it suits them.

Now, the trouble with the ethical approach is that, as I have said before, it takes us to a place where the moral compass spins, anything goes, and nothing is beyond contemplation. Dr No does not have a problem with examining ideas, indeed he welcomes the process. In the safety of the debating chamber the compass can spin, and the world be turned inside out, just so long as we don’t export half-baked or chimerical ideas into the real world where they may mutate into doctrines of sinister lethality.

Whenever malicious seeds of mischievous doubt are sown, we should be on our guard. We must join the lawyers and the ethicists at their games, and play as hard as we can to ensure that those who are more skilled in the arts of argument and debate do not carry the day merely because of their greater skill in these arts.

Medical ethicists referring to Kant and Heidegger?  Um… I suppose that might be me, then.  It’s just a shame that No doesn’t know enough about philosophy to realise that Heidegger is certainly no deontologist, and is barely an ethicist at all unless you jump through some fairly hefty hoops (which is why the papers I’ve been meaning to write on him have been mainly unwritten for the past five years).  But maybe that’s not a problem, because a lot of what motivates the post is that ethicists should be treated with suspicion because they – we – do occasionally upset the apple-cart.  What else would underpin the suggestion that ethicists ought to be quarantined to some degree just in case what we think should make a difference to the world?  This looks perilously close to the idea that ethicists are fine for as long as they make trivial comments or suggestions that cohere with everyday intuition, but that anything more than that happens, they’re a threat.  To the idea that, in a clash between lay intuition and reflection, lay intuition has the trump card because… er… reflection clashes with it.  And that’s just nuts.  You might just as well have said that we should treat medics with suspicion because of their unsettling insistence that disease is frequently caused by the invisibly small blobby creatures crawling all over everything.

Besides: doubt is neither malicious nor mischievous.  As a person with a broadly scientific training, No should know that doubt is fundamental to the scientific method.  The same applies in the humanities.  Doubt is good.  It should be encouraged.

As for penetrating the impenetrable and mastering the unmasterable…  God only knows what that means.  I’ll take it charitably, though, as indicating that ethics is often harder than it looks.  Fine: it is.  It’s frequently counterintuitive.  That doesn’t mean that ethicists are engaged in charlatanry – much less that there’s anything lethally sinister about what we do.  It just means that ethics is often harder than it looks.  Quick: someone tell the internet.  What makes the difference between a philosopher and Dr No, though, is that if a counterintuitive conclusion is reached based on an apparently sound argument, it’s the conclusion that bites the dust.  That’s not charlatanry: it’s brutal, cold, unflinching and steely honesty.  If I don’t like my conclusions, then I’m willing to accept the possibility that it’s me, not they, that’s wrong.

Dr No?  No, no, no.

(Oh, and this post is somewhere around 950 words long below the fold.  So not far off the thousand painted by the picture.)

(Visited 37 times, 1 visits today)