Wednesday, 17 October 2007

A question of ethics

The library current awareness page now has a section on ethics. Recently I've been adding a lot of stories on the abortion debate to it. It struck me that many of the stories on ethics seem to be about preserving and protecting life, or meeting in a dignified way with death, at the beginning or end of life. If you were asked to give two examples of ethical debates in health what would you come up with? The two that leap to my mind are abortion and euthanasia.

This made me wonder what was the definition of ethics. My Shorter Oxford helpfully defines it as the science of morals...and then defines the science of morals as being to do with ethics.

I think it has to do with protecting the weak and vulnerable. Ethics are always interesting, perhaps it is also that we were all once born and will all eventually die so that cerebral debate on the rights of the terminally ill to die with dignity will one day become a very real set of decisions about your parent, or sibling, or you.

The other area of ethics in health is around animal welfare. Is it right that we should use animals to test drugs, shampoos, lipsticks, to ensure that we can use medicines and other products safely? Again, this seems to be to be an issue of protecting the vulnerable.

Beyond that, ethical questions arise when we learn how to do something new, and immediately we ask should we do it? I presume that in the past that impulse was a safety net. I have discovered that I can pull this animal's tail, put my hand in this fire or jump down this ravine. But are those actions wise? Will they harm me?

We teach children very early on that there are many things they can do but should not. Some of these are definite rules to avoid harm - don't touch that hot mug of tea! Don't put that pea in your ear! Don't hit your sister! Others are rules to help us fit into the rest of society - Don't pick your nose! Don't put your elbows on the table! Don't say that rude word!

Sometimes humankind learns how to do things and then finds they are harmful. We discover thalidomide and damage many babies. We discover that cows will eat other animals, and end up with BSE and vCJD. We discover tobacco and give ourselves lung cancer. Humankind has no parent to advise us, so we must think things out for ourselves. Sometimes we have to learn things through experience. Sometimes it takes many years for the harm to become apparent - hence the current debate on whether or not mobile phones cause brain tumours.

So it seems to me that ethics is about whether we should do those things we can do. It is about ensuring that we do not harm ourselves as individuals, communities or a species. It is about protecting others, too. Above all, ethics is about thinking before we act. There are more topics for ethical debate on the website of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and on Intute's Bioethics Web. There are also ethical issues around you every day that should make you think.

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