Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Happy Birthday!

By Margaret R. McLean, Ph.D.

It hardly seems possible that the Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor Hospital has celebrated its first birthday, but on August 1st one candle was lit and blown-out in celebration of a year of learning and growing and hard work. It seems appropriate to offer kudos and thank yous to all who have made the Center a viable and vital entity.

Over the past year as Director I have found myself confronted, and admittedly at times confounded, by questions. This is not a surprise really since questions are a key component of ethics. After all, if we always knew just what we should do, what decision we ought to make, we would have no need to question ourselves, no struggles with right and wrong, no sleepless nights wondering if we did the right thing; in a word, we would have no ethical questions. However, although I am in the "question business," I am constantly surprised by the questions I hear. And, I have discovered over these past months that there is one question which is on the minds of most people with whom I talk--patients, families, members of the community, those who are sick and those who are well. It's a simple question but an immensely important one-- "Just what is ethics?"

Ethics is thinking clearly, listening carefully, and speaking helpfully about life, about who we are and what we do. Ethics asks us to think about just what it is that makes a right action right and a wrong action wrong--why is it that most of us would agree that lying is wrong and telling the truth is right? Are there rules which we follow, results which are good, rights to be protected, justice to be promoted? And, ethics asks us to listen carefully to the answers to these questions--to listen to ourselves certainly, but, more importantly, to listen to each other. We don't do ethics alone; ivory towers are not where ethics happens. Ethics takes place in conversation, in hearing other points of view and in speaking helpfully with others, with those folks with whom we agree and with those with whom we profoundly disagree. Ethics demands that we give reasons for a particular position, for why we believe lying to be wrong for example. Is it wrong to lie because it hurts people; or because it violates a person's right to the truth; or because society would cease to function if we all lied?

Ethics asks us to do things we do every day--to think, to listen, to speak. But, it asks us to focus on life, on who we are as individuals and families and societies, on what we do to ourselves and to others. These are the hard questions--what is life; what makes it worth living; what is of value in the lives we lead? Indeed, ethics is a pursuit of answers to difficult, breath-taking questions about life. The Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor exists as a place for such thinking, listening and speaking.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 1995 edition of the O'Connor Health News, a publication of O'Connor Hospital, San Jose, California.

Copyright 1995 Margaret R. McLean, Ph.D.

Margaret R. McLean, Ph.D. is the Director of The Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor.

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