May Reading: ‘A Meta-Ethics for Professional Role Morality’ by Benjamin Freedman

Hello everyone.
This month’s reading is ‘A Meta-Ethics for Professional Role Morality’ by Benjamin Freedman, in Ethics 89 (1) 1978, pp 1-19. I am assuming that you can access this via your academic libraries/JSTOR but let me know if otherwise.

As will be obvious already, this is an old paper. Aspects of it are conspicuously outdated, for example the claim that Freedman’s example topic of medical confidentiality has ‘been neglected even in this boom time for medical ethics’ (p.2. Nonetheless I think it’s an interesting- and fairly digestible – paper that relates to a (or the) central question of role ethics: that of role-morality’s relation to or separation from ‘ordinary’ morality. Starting from the medical and therapeutic confidentiality example, Freedman asks how it is so much more stringent in this professional context than in the ordinary moral context, and claims that ‘[c]onflict between professional and ordinary morality does not arise […] through happenstance but is an essential part of the description of the relationship of these two moralities.’ (p.10). He argues for this by considering whether this apparent conflict could be dissolved by deontological, act-utilitarian and rule-utilitarian accounts. Whilst rule-utilitarianism is the nearest theory to the alternative account he concludes with, it too is inadequate. For Freedman, professions have internal moralities by virtue of their elevating particular values (such as ‘first do no harm’ in medical practice), and the justification for this can’t be carried out in purely utilitarian terms.

I had two queries. The first was whether he would think that this kind of non-reducible moral independence only applies in the way he thinks it does to professions, and if so why? What of other social roles which revolve around certain values and have putative standards and norms, such as parent (care, devotion?), spouse (romantic love?), club-member or even friend (loyalty)? Freedman might grant this, and accept that a whole range of roles and practices are like professions in the moral sense in which he is interested. But this apparently boring concession would illuminate a second worry, that Freedman’s meta-ethic for professional morality isn’t really a meta-ethic, but rather a denial that there is any meta-ethical work to do when it comes to  certain discrete values and standards of professions or roles. And that just seems highly implausible. For the sake of this argument we could ask rhetorically: why not also allow that a role/practice we consider standardly immoral has certain values that are internal to it which thus ground its ‘internal’ morality in just this way? Mafia and Mafioso, Slavery and slave master… etc etc. The answer to this would seem obviously to be ‘because there are very strong moral values and reasons outweighing the very norms and values which are at the heart of practices and roles such as these’. That’s fine, but then just the same kind of external justification would seem apt for professions or roles that we value morally. Why do we accept and allow the internal moralities of law, medicine etc.? Presumably because we think that internal standards are conducive with promoting their respective practices and institutions, and that these practices and institutions are by and large morally acceptable or good, and worth maintaining. But pace Freedman, justification for all of this seems explicable in terms of a general moral outlook- if not a purely utilitarian one. So, medical ethical practices being built on the maxim primum non nocere does not seem to be something that is justified by medicine internally, even though the maxim may be rightly be internal – essential to or ‘at the heart of’ the practice.


March Reading: Dare, ‘Robust Role-Obligation: How Do Roles Make a Moral Difference?’ (2017)

It’s still March, but only just so we’ll keep the comments open well into April.

This next reading, suggested by Sean, is from the Special Issue on Virtue Ethics and Role Ethics mentioned in an earlier post.

Dare, Tim (2017) Robust Role-Obligation: How Do Roles Make a Moral Difference? in Journal of Value Inquiry, 50(4): 703-19.

Summary of the piece to follow soon in the comments section, but the topic in the first paragraph is instantly gripping:

How could it be right, Macaulay asked, ‘‘that a man should, with a wig on his head and a band around his neck, do for a guinea what, without these appendages, he would think it wicked and infamous to do for an empire?’’ How can a role make a moral difference? (p. 703)

Workshop II (Manchester): 22nd March 2017

This single day event is now finalized, and the (only loosely enforced) theme is Roles and Wellbeing. We’ll have three sessions this time:

  • Sam Clark, ‘Three Relations between Roles and the Good’
  • Family Roles: discussion session with Lindsey Porter and (by videolink) Reid Blackman
  • Alex Barber, ‘Wellbeing in the context of collective achievement’

Abstracts and other details can be found on the Events page. It will be held in a University of Manchester building.

All welcome.

NOTE: the third workshop will be in Edinburgh, July 12-14 2017. Some details of this are also on the Events page but the programme is more tentative.

February Reading: Brake, ‘Willing Parents’ (2010)

This month’s reading, by Elizabeth Brake, is the second in the reading-group series. Contributions welcome (from members of the network or beyond) in the comments.

Brake, Elizabeth (2010) ‘Willing Parents: A Voluntarist Account of Parental Role Obligations’ in David Archard and David Benatar, eds., Procreation and Parenthood: The Ethics of Bearing and Rearing Children, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 151-78.

Hardimon (in January’s reading) draws a contrast between between contractual and non-contractual roles, according to the source of the role’s obligations. When he discusses family roles they are put in the non-contractual camp, but he never discusses the role of parent save in passing, usually in the context of discussing filial obligations to parents.

Brake argues that we should treat parental obligations as having a voluntarist source. The standard alternative (the causal account) is to see parental obligations as derived from the parent’s having caused someone to exist.

Continue reading

‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ anniversary

Noam Chomsky’s New York Review of Books essay was published fifty years ago today (Feb 23 1967) and is a seminal criticism of much of the response to the Vietnam war by academics at the time. Among other things he argues that intellectuals have special obligations have over and above their obligations as citizens:

For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than… the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

An event in London to commemorating the anniversary on Saturday (Feb 25) is sold out but will be live streamed, and will feature a video-link contribution by the author. The essay itself is freely available from the NYRB website.

January Reading: Hardimon, ‘Role Obligations’ (1994)

This is the first in the reading-group series. Contributions welcome (from members of the network or beyond) in the comments. The post itself gives an overview of the article.

Hardimon, Michael O. (1994) Role Obligations. Journal of Philosophy. 91(7): 333-363.

This is a modern classic for anyone working on the ethics of roles, and is often cited in discussions of special obligations and the like. The writing is beautifully clear, and this a good place for us to start if only because one of Hardimon’s ambitions is to bring the topic of roles in from the wings of normative philosophy and onto centre-stage where many of us agree it belongs.

His other main ambition is to get clear on what is and isn’t right about what he calls the ‘standard view’ of role obligations, which he summarizes in three claims (p. 337):

  1. Role obligations are of two kinds, ‘contractual’ and ‘non-contractual’;
  2. Contractual role obligations are acquired by signing on for the roles from which they derive;
  3. Non-contractual role obligations are extremely problematic, if they exist at all.

Continue reading

Virtue Ethics and Role Ethics (special issue)

A new special issue of The Journal of Value Inquiry is dedicated to Virtue Ethics and Role Ethics (Volume 50, Issue 4, December 2016). The issue is edited by Richard Paul Hamilton (Notre Dame, Australia) and includes what look to be some very welcome discussions.

Here is the list of contents. The short introduction (full text via link below) provides useful context plus paper summaries.

  • Introduction: My Role and Its Virtues (Richard Paul Hamilton)
  • A Virtue Ethical Theory of Role Ethics (Christine Swanton)
  • Robust Role-Obligation: How Do Roles Make a Moral Difference? (Tim Dare)
  • The Ethical Importance of Roles (Anne Baril)
  • The Wholehearted Professional (Richard Paul Hamilton)
  • Academic Virtues: Site Specific and Under Threat (Michael P. Levine & Damian Cox)
  • Virtue Ethics and Public Policy: Upholding Medical Virtue in Therapeutic Relationships as a Case Study (Justin Oakley)
  • A Defence of the Aristotelian Virtue of Magnificence (Nafsika Athanassoulis)
  • Role Modeling in an Early Confucian Context (Cheryl Cottine)