Practicing Ethics

Faculty group completes first year of exploring ethical issues from professional and practical perspectives

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The professional and philosophical dimensions of ethics - and the unique resources Boston College brings to the exploration of each - are at the core of a new interdisciplinary seminar series, the success of which has spurred its organizers to seek more participants.

Under the direction of a five-member planning group, the Ethics in Practice Seminar Series sponsored four presentations in its first full year of operation, examining such topics as confidentiality, e-mail privacy and casuistry. The series' organizers are working on future events, as well as other initiatives they hope will contribute to the evolving discussion of ethics in the University community.

"There is a strong grassroots interest in ethics at BC, and in reaching across disciplines," said Assoc. Prof. Judith McMorrow (Law), who serves as coordinator for the planning group. "We are part of a wave, but we see our focus as involving ethical dimensions in different contexts - in professions, in academia, as well as our own lives. Fundamentally, we want to explore how we, as imperfect human beings, can teach others ethical practice and strive for it ourselves."

Along with McMorrow, the group consists of School of Education Dean Mary Brabeck, Luce Professor of Nursing Ethics Sara Fry, Prof. Richard Nielsen (CSOM) and Associate Dean of Faculties Richard Spinello.

Ethics in Practice members (from left) SOE Dean Mary Brabeck, Assoc. Prof. Judith McMorrow (Law) and Prof. Richard Nielsen (CSOM).

According to McMorrow, the seminars grew out of a series of annual interdisciplinary roundtables hosted by the Law School. She said the 1996 event led to the formation of two task forces to assess the ethical roles of professionals and organizations: The Ethics in Practice group, and a group led by Prof. Sandra Waddock (CSOM) which examines the idea of "the civil society." Last spring, the ethics group launched the seminar series with a talk by University Chancellor J. Donald Monan, SJ, titled "Practice Wisdom and the Ethics of Practice."

Events this academic year have included presentations by Prof. Patrick Byrne (Philosophy) on ethics and service learning, and by Adj. Assoc. Prof. Paul Tremblay (Law) on casuistry, which involves applying general ethical principles to determine right or wrong in questions of conduct or conscience. In March, Spinello spoke on e-mail and privacy, and last month the series concluded with Prof. William Richardson, SJ (Philosophy), discussing philosophical aspects of confidentiality.

"The biggest benefit for me is the chance to work with people from other disciplines," Spinello said. "The experience gives you some different ideas to work with, a new way to look at what you do. I'm also glad we are able to bring to the discussion a philosophical and scholarly orientation, to provide some theoretical underpinnings. That reflects the unique character of Boston College and the special outlook we can offer such conversations."

McMorrow said one goal for the planning group is to broaden the base of participants in the seminars, which have averaged approximately 10 to 15 each. Next fall, she said, the series will begin examining how institutions can be structured so as to encourage ethical practice.

"We want to talk about institutional pressures," she explained. "What are some of the specific situations and challenges you face in a profession like law, or nursing, or social work? It's one thing for us to teach ethical practice, but what are the realities out there in the workplace? Let's better understand these institutional pressures, so we can deal with them better, and prepare others for them."

The series also will continue to highlight technology-related ethical issues, McMorrow said. In addition, planning group members hope to become more involved in ethics scholarship over time, and are presently exploring the possibility of developing courses on research ethics.

"It's a way of taking a more visible role in shaping the examination of ethics," McMorrow said. "So many initiatives here at BC - such as the Center for Child, Family and Community Partnerships and the Barat House Seminars, for example - are redefining what it means to be a professional, and promoting an enriched model of service. We think an interdisciplinary discussion on ethics in professional practice can add to that process."

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