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2nd May, 2013: Peter Bowden: Ethics for a Dinner Party


Peter Bowden  spoke about a book he just has published in which over 20 contributors identified the ethical issues they had experienced across 14 different disciplines. The talk will provide a sample of the more interesting dilemmas, enough for discussing over a  dozen dinner parties. A more serious second part discusses ways in which we can use this knowledge to build a more ethical society. 

Check out the book at  http://www.tup.net.au/publications-new/Applied_Ethics.aspx


Peter is one of the convenors of Philo Agora, and is secretary to the Australian Society of Professional and Applied Ethics.  Formerly Professor of Administration at the University of Manchester, Peter has a background in Engineering, Administration and Economic Development.




A light hearted discussion on moral theory, whistleblowing, and other matters of ethical importance. 


Not all that long ago, I set out to write a book which I tentatively titled “99 ethical dilemmas”, but later retitled, without it ever being finished, as “Table Talk”. The retitling was built on the concept that the book would provide enough discussion topics for a whole series of dinner parties.


This dinner party book was aimed at providing entertainment. But it had an ulterior motive. As a newly appointed lecturer in ethics, I was still coming to grips with the multitude of ethical theories that I needed to sort through, and to decide on those which I needed to teach. I had read enough to realise that many of the theories gave conflicting answers. My working background had also established the guideline that the ethical behaviour in any organisation, and of the people within it, depended on being able to clearly identify an ethical decision. I also had the idea, to which I am still wedded,   that we could test the more popular theories, by applying them to difficult-to-resolve ethical dilemmas. We would then determine which theory, or combination of theories, worked best.


The ethical dilemmas book is still in the making …Another book has intervened….Its title is “Applied Ethics” and it has just come out.


You can see it on the website




Some 22 contributors to this book examined the ethical values and transgressions across 14 disciplines or professions. The chapters were written by members and affiliates of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics. And they did raise some interesting ethical dilemmas.


This ethics book, I have since discovered, can substitute for the Table Topics book. At times, many of us have wondered about the ethical issues it portrays. In much of our daily life, it is not always clear what is the most desirable course to adopt.  This talk is a light-hearted overview of some of these questions – more dinner party conversations, in short.


I might add in here that philosophers have been arguing about right and wrong from the days of Plato, and even before. My count at that time gave me fifteen different theories (Singer 1993). So determining the desirable response to an ethical dilemma is a worthwhile task - – although not that easy.


This paper is not about the ethical wrongs committed by these professions. The book does set out  a multitude of sins on the part of doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc., with which all of us are unfortunately quite familiar. But  I will outline only the dilemmas.  We do finish on a more serious note, however, although just a brief one, for the examination of ethical dilemmas across such a wide number of occupations do give us insights into how we may resolve the question of right and wrong.


Some issues for you to discuss over the dinner table


I will throw several them into the ring. We will not stop to consider them during the presentation, but you can discuss them afterwards – Or at you next dinner party.


Veterinarians and your pet.


This chapter was prepared by Tanya Stephens, a vet in practice in Sydney who has been active in vet ethics associations over the years .Tanya raises one issue with which many of us are familiar– that of ‘Sheba’ the much loved pet of Rhonda, a recently separated woman.  Sheba, a nine year old German Shepherd, was to have a laparotomy, as she appeared to have an enlarged liver. On the day of the operation, the vet rang with bad news, recommending that Sheba be put down. The liver was almost fully affected by cancer and there was no possibility of survival. The vet advised that Sheba should be euthanased without waking up from surgery.


Rhonda said no. She wanted to take her pet home and allow her to die at home with her.

Vets are almost unanimous on this issue.  Sheba should have been “euthanased on the operating table when the laparotomy revealed an inevitably fatal prognosis. The veterinarian should have insisted, and even invoked animal welfare laws if the owner was intransigent to this suggestion” (p.224).


Tanya raises another one. Acupuncture for animals, - a treatment that I can assure you is very topical at the moment. Some close members of my family swear by acupuncture for their pet.  Tanya quotes five research projects that show us that “acupuncture has been shown to have no efficacy in animals and the effect in humans is most likely due to the placebo effect that cannot be replicated in animals” (p.227).


So is it unethical for a vet to recommend, and charge for, acupuncture?




We have three to throw out here. Betty Chaar, a teacher of pharmacy ethics at Sydney University raises them:


1.     A program has recently been inaugurated by the Pharmacists Guild in Australia requiring pharmacists to report impaired colleagues. i.e. those affected by alcohol, illicit substances or mental illness would be reported (p.132). This recommendation is a worry. It seems somewhat like the Stasi (East German Security Police) at work. Or Orwell’s Thought Police. But the effect would be to identify professional colleagues who could be unreliable. Shouldn’t we have such a program for all our professional colleagues?  And our non –professional colleagues?


2.     The new contraceptive pill is now freely obtainable. What then is the ethical obligation on pharmacists whose religious or personal beliefs preclude using contraception?


3.     The request to provide a medicine late at night, needed to relieve the pain of an elderly patient, but without a required prescription. The dilemma is every pharmacist’s concern. Should the pharmacist break the law?


Journalism and the media.


The writer of this article, Jolyon Sykes, came up with the conclusion that it is impossible to regulate the ethical behaviour of journalists. Success - by journalists as well as editors and owners – is built on who has the better and more interesting story, and who got it first .


These determinants of success have led, at minimum, to exaggeration and hyperbole, but also to the less than savoury practices we came across recently in the News of the World scandal.  The dilemma then, is can we regulate the ethics of the media?  Although it came too late for the book, the recent attempts by the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, and the subsequent condemnation by the Murdoch Press, that likened him to Stalin and other dictators( Daily Telegraph,13 March 2013 ) suggest that the media is ungovernable. Conroy was accused of muzzling a fundamental human right – the right to free speech.


The topic to discuss here is whether the media should have unfettered freedom?  There are no controls at the moment (Short of a ban on hate speech). Many of us are aware, however, that children can access some unbelievably repulsive content on the web. Also, with multiple smart phones, tablets and computers in the house, it is near impossible to supervise a child’s access to web content. Some form of content control would be desirable. Or will freedom of speech win out?




This profession raises some interesting speculation. Engineers push the state of the art. They have to…that is the nature of the discipline. But what if they push too far?  The construction –whatever it is – explodes, or collapses, and people are killed. A couple of examples – the Challenger disaster where seven astronauts were killed. Trips into space are inherently dangerous. This launch had doubts – uncertain warnings –raised beforehand about the sealing of the oxygen tanks. The seals leaked and the spaceship exploded. Was NASA pushing too hard?


Or the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne, a state of the art box girder design, which collapsed during construction killing 35 workmen. The Royal Commission said that the engineers did not check their design sufficiently. The engineers deny this accusation.   Is it just the nature of engineering, or are there ethical issues here?


There are many ethical conundrums in engineering. That chapter quoted studies that said about 94% of engineers believed that bid shopping was unethical. Bid shopping is searching around for successively lower price. It is similar to reverse auctions - the sequential accepting of competitive bids, in reducing monetary value, from suppliers or subcontractors. Some 77% of engineers believe this practice is unethical.  They are, nevertheless, methods for strengthening competition. Is either of them really unethical?


Of course there are straightforward ethical failures. The CTV building in Christchurch is one- totally unethical engineering. But it raises a conundrum. If national design or construction standards are raised, does the responsible engineer have the obligation to check compliance with all his or her past work? I raised this issue with a talk on engineering ethics at the Head Office for the designers of the Sydney Opera House. I said yes. A sizeable, and noisy, minority argued no. Impossible to control! And who would pay for this retrograde back-checking, in any case?


Who was right?




This profession has some of the curliest ethical questions of any discipline. - informed consent research; parental control over children’s healthcare; in particular reproductive issues– abortion and  stem cell end of life issues, particularly  euthanasia.

We did not canvass all these. But let me throw out two or three conundrums that the authors, Ian Kerridge and his associates, did outline:


A four year old child, Shari, had contracted a meningococcal infection. Into emergency within hours, and unconscious, placed on a respirator in intensive care but to little effect. Her parents were advised after some weeks on life support that she had suffered a major brain injury, would never regain consciousness, or lead an independent life, and that the respirator should be be turned off. The parents refused (p.112). What to do?


Fifteen year old Christina went to her local doctor for the first time without her mother. She was having a sexual relationship with her boyfriend and wanted a prescription for the oral pill Again, what should the doctor do? (p. 113)


Ben, ten year old son of Jehovah’s witnesses was hit by a car, suffering major abdominal and chest injuries. The hospital advised that he would need blood transfusions but the parents refused. What should the hospital do?


The book’s case problem, incidentally, was outdone by a recent Jehovah’s Witness case in Sydney where the patient, almost 18, and suffering from a lethal form of blood cancer, refused the transfusion. The NSW Supreme Court overruled the patient and his parents.  (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April, 2013)



The ethical issues in business are almost without number. Howard Harris’ investigation lists corporate social responsibility, issues of privacy and transparency, equity and greed, and lack of compliance with the many business codes that have been established. Our task, however, is not to tell you of the many wrongs with business – it is to set out some topics for your dinner table.


One question here – can we prevent unethical business conduct by codes of ethics? Many observers decry the usefulness of a code of ethics. There is substance in this rejection. If I many inject a personal note, I regularly teach a short course at one of Sydney’s universities.  The university sends me the contract along with a lengthy code of ethics, every year. I sign the code yet I have yet to read beyond the first few lines.  I can guess what it tells me. And I believe I am ethical.


But as we will see later, we can make codes effective. And I may only think I am ethical.




The nursing paper raised several issues that were repeated in other disciplines – the ethics of care for instance, or, as just mentioned, the role and effectiveness of codes of ethics. But it was the only paper to raise a concern that in fact is common to all disciplines – to what extent should anybody in educational and training programs, in this case nurses, be exposed to ethical concerns outside those of their discipline? 


Leila Toiviainen argued for human rights issues and global warming among others, as  topics that nurses should include in their training. (p.122).The question here is should this practice be universal? For all disciplines? Should everybody get an ethics course?




The political chapter put forward the proposition that political life involves a special kind of ethic; that it is not appropriate to judge politicians by normal ethical standards (pp.177, 178). It is a claim with which many might agree. Political bodies declaring war, for instance, is one example. But there are several others. Alan Tapper ranks the allegiance to the party, versus the commitment to the common good, as a high ranking dilemma (p.179). The conflict between right and right, where the political decision will disadvantage one deserving need at the expense of an equally deserving need, is yet another.


How do politicians make such decisions? And is Alan right when he says “it will not be appropriate to judge politicians by the same standards as we judge everyday behaviour” (p.179)




A discipline with a mass of ethical issues, although the reader will be aware of most of them. Michael Schwartz, however, raises a couple of dilemmas worth discussing.  One is the not so new practice is undercover marketing - where those marketing the product disguise their intent. Michael uses the example of Natasha, an attractive woman who encourages men to buy Absolut Vodka, without divulging that she works for Absolut Vodka. A less alcoholic example and perhaps one that is more common, is the appearance of a product in an everyday TV or magazine setting, but which is actually a paid advertisement. Michael quotes Pepsi Cola’s sponsored teenage magazine where the models are drinking Pepsi.


Ethical ?   Or just another example of caveat emptor, where the consumer should be aware.


Michael’s other example is consumer sovereignty – the now fading concept that the customer is always right. This concept is being replaced by postmodern concepts where the market predominates- the market is above all.  Marketing of human organs, he asks: is it ethical? Then pointing out that a very poor man may willingly sell his kidney for the money it brings in and the opportunity to feed his family.




Kay Plummer outlined a practice that I had not come across before - that of earnings management. Apparently a company can manipulate its earnings quite legitimately, by adjusting its inventory write-offs. Good earnings, a better share price, and a subsequent increase in the value of the share price and options for owners and senior managers is the result.


Kay didn’t give us any conundrums for the dinner table however, with the possible exception of just one - how to ensure a true statement of corporate earnings for public information.  She noted the tremendous conflict of interest facing an auditor – a conflict that was the cause of the demise of Arthur Andersen, Enron’s auditor. She advocated that public companies be required to purchase insurance on the accuracy of published figures. The auditor would be employed by the insurance company. Would it work?


Maybe that one is a bit involved for general consideration.




Experiments on animals - that question looms large in Julian Lamond’s and Kevin Lowe’s chapter. “Some kinds of research unavoidably involve killing animals without euthanasia.“(p.211). Any research scientist trying to get approvals for a new drug will verify this statement. Apparently such testing is required to determine the lethal dose.  But it raises interesting issues on the ethical values we place on a human life vis-s-vis that of an animal.

Another is military weapons research, or biological and chemical warfare research. Should we support this type of research? Some condemn it – arguing that the scientist is being unethical. The contrary argument is that after all, we want our country to be able to outsmart some erratic dictator. 


Certainly, for our own well-being, we have an ethical obligation to keep up to date on weapons research. Where do each of us stand on this issue? 




“There is a fundamental inconsistency in the lawyer’s role between the task of upholding the law and the task of serving the client’s interests” (p. 187). We notice this legal duty almost daily, as the media reports the defence counsel offering a somewhat implausible reason for their client behaving in such a questionable manner.


Tom Campbell and Vivien Holmes go further: “This duty to defend (in criminal cases) applies irrespective of any belief or opinion the lawyer may form as to whether the client is guilty or not “(p.189).


Ethical ? Should a lawyer use all the tricks of the trade to defend a guilty person?


Their assertion in fact not quite as bad as it appears. The authors do state that a legal representative should not continue to represent a guilty client if that client insists on denying guilt.

IT ethics.


I learned one fact from this chapter:  This industry is no longer called IT, but ICT, Information and Communications Technology. The new term embraces all the new technology that has landed on our doorstep, including the social media revolution – Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, etc. They bring a whole host of ethical issues with them - cyber bullying, and respect for privacy being probably the more obvious. Although worthy of a dinner party, they are not dilemmas.  None of them appear too difficult for our everyday ethical values to resolve.

With one exception. Whose responsibility is it to determine what is ethical ? To frame and police the code of ethics - the technologists? Or the user? The author, Oliver Burmeister and I disagreed. I said it was the responsibility of the technologist – in Australia, that would be the Australian Computer Society (for which Oliver had made a major contribution to its Code of Ethics). He said no – or at best it was a joint responsibility (p.252).

Who was right?


Police ethics


No dinner party dilemmas emerged, unfortunately, although there much to discuss. Including some new terminology: ‘meat–eaters’ and ‘grass-eaters’. Grass-eaters just happily accept the pay-offs that come through everyday policing – the offerings of normal citizens to avoid a speeding ticket or otherwise sort out their problems with the police.  


Meat–eaters aggressively seek the pay-offs (p.168).


And finally, the missing chapter


There is no chapter on what is often included under “bio-ethics” - the ethics of birth and death – reproduction and end-of-life issues – abortion, stem cell research, suicide and euthanasia primarily. These issues are sometimes taught under a topic titled “Practical Ethics”.


The reason is that for a large part, these concerns are often raised by people with religious views, or with right-to-life values. We did not regard them as ethical issues. And that is another topic for the dinner table – is abortion an ethical issue? Or euthanasia ?


The serious section


This is the closing section about which you have been warned. How to resolve all these ethical dilemmas? And how to make the world a more ethical place?  In fact, the subtitle of the book is “Strengthening Ethical Practices”. Is that claim justifiable?


The first question is not so serious - How to resolve ethical dilemmas.  We put in two chapters on this question, one by Stephen Cohen and the other by Hugh Breakey. Both are highly respected moral philosophers. And at the time of writing, President and Vice President respectively of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics. Stephen set out the traditional approaches – methods developed (and argued over) for almost 2500 years. He did not document the regular theories – Deontology and Virtue -  and barely mentioned Utilitarianism – rather setting out his own thinking concepts – that of approaching the ethical issue from several directions to reach a degree of reflective equilibrium. The chapter is based on his own work with Damian Grace (2004), but, I believe, reaching that much more deeply.. Hugh added a chapter on some of the recent combined or pluralist theories.   Known by the name of their developers – Beauchamp and Childress (2009), William Frankena (1973) and Bernard Gert (2004), they are approaches that meld the long established theories into one. All build on JS Mill’s Utilitarianism, with a dose of duty ethics- those of Immanuel Kant   My personal preferred approach is Gert’s. He builds a set of guidelines based on avoiding, minimising or redressing harm. He also introduces the concept of weighing one harm (or good) against another. Somewhat like choosing the lesser of two evils - but harm instead of evil. Under my simple concept this is the ultimate ethical principle. But with a background in management and engineering, rather than philosophy, I thought it unwise to speak out – best leave it to the experts.  In any case, Gert only gives us answers to some of the dilemmas detailed above by invoking Kant. His last two rules (of ten), categorised as avoiding “indirect harm”, are Obey the Law” and “Do your Duty.” 


One other concept is worth mentioning. It is the huge increase in recent years in systems and methods of strengthening ethical practices, the most noticeable of which is the steps taken by governments to encourage and protect whistleblowers. An extensive research program has confirmed that blowing the whistle is the most effective way of exposing wrong. We are naturally ethical, evolved with at least cooperative instincts, a claim made by numerous philosophers. But we take whistleblowers apart. The book assumes that this retaliation is a product of tribal mentality, also a topic of philosophical speculation, alluded to in Peter Singer’s “A Darwinian Left” (1999)   It is the ‘we–they’, ‘us–them’ conflict that has created so many disasters for this world.  


There are other approaches set out strengthening ethical practices. Making Codes of Ethics effective by adopting a participative approach; overcoming group think; recognising when we ourselves have been unethical.  The last one may be a great topic for a dinner party. Two authors, Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, in a book titled “Blind Spots” (2012), claim that we do not recognise when we ourselves have been unethical. Stephen Cohen terms it moral blindness in his chapter. Several other theorists have supported this argument, but these two have a full book with a series of convincing arguments, and examples. They title their subject “Behavioural Ethics,” arguing primarily for reasons of professional group think, and social stratification, that we do not always recognise when we ourselves are being unethical.  


So there is the final question: “Do we sometimes fail to recognise our ethical obligations?” 




Beauchamp, TL & Childress, J (2009), Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 6th edn, Oxford University Press: New York.


Bazerman Max and Tenbrunsel Ann, (2012)  Blind Spots Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It  Princeton University Press

Daily Telegraph; “Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper - likening Stephen Conroy to despots, dictators and mass murderers: Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim, Mugabe, Ahmadinejad”  ABC’s 7.30 report.13 March 2012

Grace D.  and Cohen S. (2004), The nature of moral reasoning Melbourne Oxford University Press

Frankena, WK (1973), Ethics, 2nd edn, Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs.


Gert, B (2004), Common Morality: Deciding What to Do, Oxford University Press: New York.

Singer, Peter (1993). A Companion to Ethics (ed.), Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Singer, Peter (1999). A Darwinian Left .Politics Evolution, and Cooperation Yale university Press. New Haven




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