The ethicist’s parable

Doug Samuelson

As the analyst conversed with the rabbi after the ethics seminar, several other people joined in. “So you want to organize a seminar on ethics for your professional society’s conference?” the philosopher inquired. “Be sure to include people from different backgrounds, as the organizers did for this panel.”

“Sure,” the analyst agreed. “I’m sure there will be many points of view on the interesting questions.”

“Judging from my experience,” the philosopher said, “there will be fewer differences than you might expect about what to do in most situations. You can get sharp differences on abortion, or some end-of-life and who-gets treatment issues, but on scientists’ and engineers’ issues, most of the answers from ethicists tend to be similar: Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize, be careful about being pulled into dishonest studies by crooked sponsors.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” the analyst shrugged, uncertainly.

“But ethics isn’t just about answers on specific issues,” the philosopher went on. “It’s even more about how you get to answers on issues you hadn’t considered before. And thaat’s where we all differ!”

“I noticed that in the panel discussion, Father Healy kept referring to the Church’s teachings. Rabbi Lipman here,” the analyst said, nodding to the rabbi, “referred to Jewish law, but talked about differences in how to interpret it, working in reasoning about what the law that didn’t exist on certain subjects should have been. Imam al-Youssuf talked about disagreements among imams who are considered authoritative – but unlike the Catholic Church, he explained, Islam has no formal structure to resolve arguments about how to interpret the Koran and apply it to new situations. Pastor Jones tries to find examples of what Jesus would have done in similar situations. And, of course, you, Professor Scott, as a philosopher, try to reason things out without basing it on any religious position. It seems the more you discuss ethics, the more there is to think about, and you never necessarily arrive at an answer to the question.”

The experts laughed. “Yes, that’s about right,” Professor Scott affirmed. “And that’s why you have to study ethics, not just consult one or two experts when you have an issue.”

“And not just rely on one text, either,” Father Healy said, “even if you have one that’s authoritative, as our Jewish and Muslim friends do, or one that’s sort of authoritative, as we Christians have – after a lot of wrangling over what should be in it. You may have heard,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “that at Nicea, Saint Nicholas settled one dispute by punching Aryas in the mouth! Can you imagine how annoying a person would have to be to get punched out by Santa Claus? And don’t forget, as well, that most of the basic religious texts were written in languages other than English, and translations can get controversial, too.”

“Now you’re getting me nervous about that session I was planning to organize,” the analyst frowned. “You all get along, but you’ve known each other for a while and you’re happy doing seminars like this one today. But isn’t there a chance I could pick ethics experts who wouldn’t be so agreeable, and the discussion could turn into a bickering free-for-all?”

“That could happen,” Pastor Jones acknowledged, “but it’s unlikely. The people who feel strongly that they have the one true faith position that gives all the answers typically won’t even participate in a forum like this. They’ll just preach to their own faithful and anyone else who will listen.”

“Like a lot of politicians these days,” the analyst grumbled. The panelists joined in a rather hollow laugh.

“But that does point you to the real hazard in trying to get your colleagues to discuss ethics,” Professor Scott noted. “The first and hardest challenge is getting people to recognize that they have ethical issues. And the people who most need to think hard about the ethical aspects of what they’re doing are often the most resistant to the subject.”

“Or,” the philosopher added, “they get their view of the field spoiled by the lawyers. One of my students became a very successful businessman and decided to get an executive MBA from a prestigious school. He told me later that he loved every course except the ethics course. It was taught by a corporate lawyer, and it turned out, my student told me, that it was all about ‘here’s what the laws mandating ethical behavior require, and here’s how you do most of what you wanted to do anyway.’ What’s actually the decent way to act didn’t seem to be in the syllabus.”

“That explains some things I’ve seen,” the analyst grimaced. “But now, so what do I do? And what do I try to get my profession to do?”

Father Healy suggested, “Try starting with developing a code of ethics for your society, and some process for following up on problems and complaints. Without a policy document and some consequences for violating it, not much is likely to happen.”

“My profession doesn’t have any of that,” the analyst said soberly.

“It’s not that bad,” Professor Scott smiled reassuringly. “You still start with scientific ethics in general, and laws mandating honesty in consulting. Most people act decently most of the time. You just have to get people to focus more on how to decide what acting decently means, and how you resolve differences when they arise. Get them to tell their stories about issues they’ve faced, and the discussion will take off. Keep at it, and good luck!” ORMS

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc. in Annandale, Va.

Author’s note:

Several people pointed out that my parable last issue focused on just one panelist, the rabbi. You didn’t really think I’d leave such a promising situation after just one conversation, did you?