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Morality Inc.

As moral issues reach beyond religion and permeate the public sector, a new breed of ethicists is finding a niche in the business of advising.

May 28, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nathan Tierney has opened for business as a philosophical practitioner, offering private consultations for the ethically uncertain.

Joseph Runzo recently gathered philosophers, theologians and other experts from around the world to forge a global standard allowing civil rights to coexist with religious freedom.

Bill Cutter hosted a group of health care workers concerned about emerging ethical issues such as genetic testing. (Should insurance companies, for example, be allowed to screen applicants for how susceptible they are to a costly disease?)

Tierney and Runzo are philosophers; Cutter is a rabbi. They teach at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Chapman University in Orange and Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, respectively.

They are part of a growing community of medical experts, political analysts, magazine columnists and academics who are paid to offer moral advice on the most difficult social problems of the day. Debates once reserved for the classroom and the pulpit are moving to the public square, opening the way for a new breed of professional ethicists.

Despite the rising interest in the field, Runzo says, most people don't know what ethics is, exactly. He defines it this way: "It has to do with the reasoning behind questions of morality. If morality is about right and wrong, ethics is about the reasons." Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and every philosopher since have studied human nature and moral choices. It has been ages though, since philosophers were asked to weigh in on the ethical issues of the day.

"Something is changing," says Thomas Kopfensteiner, a moral theologian at Fordham University in New York who makes a study of this move toward secularizing ethics. "We're seeing morality as part and parcel of our everyday life." People are going back to the ancient philosophers who taught general principles, he says.

"Ethics is not just about dilemmas and crises," Kopfensteiner says. "We're more interested, now, in how to be a better husband, partner, friend, a better person. It's led to a resurgence of the oldest form of ethics there is. Virtue ethics." Justice, prudence, fortitude and temperance are replacing complex religious doctrines as the basic guideposts.

Today's fast-paced advances in technology, science and medicine are turning many modern philosophers into dual-purpose experts, ethicists with training in technical fields. Medical, legal and business ethicists are in constant demand. Arthur Caplan, a PhD in philosophy and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, gets monthly invitations to take part in government commissions and television news panels exploring the moral issues surrounding biotechnology. He is asked to weigh in on such questions as: "Is it OK to implant a pig's heart into a person?"

"They want information about the rules and principles, not so much a pronouncement about what is right or wrong," says Caplan of those who ask his advice. "From there we look at the natural extensions of those principles." That's how ethics works. Start with the accepted rules of right and wrong and apply them to a new problem.

Should a doctor transplant a hand from a dead body to a living person? Caplan has his doubts, though he knows of three such cases.

"The operation could kill you, between the drugs and the surgery, yet it's not a life-threatening problem to lose a hand," he reasons.

Often, the problem is so new there isn't a precedent.

"You go to previous cases and problems and look for solutions, try to reason by analogy," he says. Laws, medical journal findings and past experiences help him decide.

Ethical dilemmas in ordinary life are commanding attention as well. Tierney's consulting firm, Philosophy in the Real World, offers leadership training for corporations as well as personal counseling about work. He usually starts by clarifying the issues. A man, for example, wonders why he's not getting ahead in his career. Tierney suggests another way of looking at it.

"There's a difference between leading and bossing," he says. "Bossing relies on coercion. Leadership means to enroll people in a plan. Once a person sees that, they can emerge as a leader at any point on the hierarchy."

The questions that Robert Huber takes up are far more intimate. His Esquire magazine column, "Man Overboard," was launched in August 1998. Most of the time he writes about his own life as a family man.

Jay Woodruff, Huber's editor at Esquire, says readers are sometimes shocked by Huber's views. One column in particular comes to mind.

"Bob's wife is still friends with a former boyfriend," Woodruff says. She went on a nine-day camping trip with her ex, and Huber didn't worry. Woodruff remembers the storm of letters that followed.

"I wish I had a dollar for every guy who wrote in and said, 'Is Huber nuts?' Actually, that column was about trust. People like to see how others confront ethical dilemmas. The more ambiguous and complex the better."

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