Reflections on the nature of 'public ethics'
Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
Microsoft Word The_Nature_of_'Public'_Ethics_cut_down_final_post_review.doc
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This paper reflects on the processes by which the Organ Donation Taskforce reached its conclusion not to propose a 'presumed consent' model for organ donation, drawing on the author’s experience as a member of that Taskforce and of other bodies charged with exploring ‘public ethics’. It argues that 'public' ethics is a much more contingent process than academic work and needs to (a) take into account contemporary policy debates, (b) be expressed in terms that are sufficiently close to the prevailing professional discourse to have a reasonable hope of reception, (c) assess how positions will be represented in the media and what behavioural changes will follow in the actual political context, (d) create workable compromise formulations, from which people can reason even if they reach them by different arguments. Critiques of ‘public ethics’ need to take these features into account. Greater attention must also be paid to the difficulties for ‘public ethics’ of dealing with public opinion and also to the implications of these contextual contingencies for analysis based on comparative work (both over time and between countries). Criticism needs also to be sensitive to the fact that pronouncements on ‘public ethics’ are an exercise in persuasion whose audience is not academics. This may excuse the use of familiar but imperfect paradigms for analysis and a degree of compromise between committee members. It does not justify incoherent arguments
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