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Clinical Ethics: Balancing Praxis and Theory
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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 6.4 (1996) 347-351

Theory and the Clinic

When André Hellegers founded the Kennedy Institute, he envisioned a close collaboration between ethics and clinical practice. He even called for physician specialists whose expertise would be in both fields (Reich 1994, p. 324). A quarter of a century later, his vision and prediction have become realities. Clinical ethics is today a thriving entity with its own literature, practitioners, and methodology.

This clinical turn has, on the whole, been salutary. The abstractness of ethical theory has been tempered by the concreteness of clinical realities; clinicians have been helped to make bedside decisions even in the face of theoretical uncertainty and dissonance; and a variety of disciplines besides theology and philosophy have entered ethical discourse and enriched it.

These advantages notwithstanding, clinical ethics has certain inherent traits that make it problematical. Some seek its norms in what "works" in practice or in paradigm cases (Jonsen and Toulmin 1988); others shape it to achieve consensus or satisfy the needs of public policy (Meilaender 1995); still others reduce bioethics to merely a method for the resolution of moral conflict. Rather than simply modulating theory by practice, clinical ethics can end up by repudiating theory entirely (Toulmin, in press). Taken to their logical conclusion, these tendencies make clinical ethics a species of the antifoundationalism that has strongly influenced moral philosophy in the last decade (Tollefsen 1995, pp. 3-18; Rockmore and Singer 1992). But antifoundationalism itself is a theory of ethics even though it supposedly denies the validity of any overarching theories.

Antifoundationalism presents its own difficulties. For one thing it begs important questions that will not go away: for example, how do we know that a decision is a good one? what does it mean to say that a decision "works"? is the outcome of a good decisional procedure itself a good decision? and to what extent are compromise and exigency admissible in moral decisions? Theoretical and "foundational" questions of this sort will not evaporate because they are ignored. They inevitably will be answered by begging the essential questions or grounding them solely in prelogical presuppositions.

To avoid these difficulties, the advantages of clinical ethics must be retained without capitulation to the anti-theory bias of contemporary philosophy. This means that theory and practice must both be retained and be conceptually related to each other. To effect this we must take account of the long intellectual history of the relationship between the speculative and the practical intellect -- i.e., between knowledge sought for its own sake and knowledge sought for some use beyond simply the possession of it (Lobkowicz 1967, pp. 78-81). Suffice it to say that medicine has long been the paradigm case for the union of theory and praxis. Relating them conceptually is an essential propaedeutic to any theory of moral praxis in medicine.

The rest of this essay examines the inextricability of theory and practice in two of the three major branches of clinical ethics -- the substantive and the professional. The third branch, procedural ethics -- i.e., the ethics of the process of decision making -- deals with informed consent, with respect for persons, professional colleagues, and families, and with the ethics of conflict resolution. Obviously, there are theoretical issues here as well. For want of space, procedural ethics will not be discussed, but it presents the same conjunction of theory and practice encountered in professional and substantive ethics.

Substantive Ethics

Substantive ethics refers to the moral content rather than the process of moral decisions, to the moral status and permissibility of the specific clinical medical acts themselves -- e.g., abortion, euthanasia, pre-implantation diagnosis, surrogate motherhood, withholding and withdrawing treatment, the physician as gatekeeper, and the like -- the whole range of moral questions clinicians face in treating patients. Moral diversity and plurality on these issues is the most powerful force behind the dominance of procedural ethics. But, unfortunately, a morally valid decision-making procedure does not confer normative validity on the decision itself. Moral validity rests on questions that go beyond prevailing practices, on what we take to be the nature and moral status of persons, fetuses, and brain-damaged humans, the value or disvalue...

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