Most of what passes for teaching professional ethics these days is really teaching about professional ethics.  In other words, we don’t teach would-be professionals, say, that cheating is wrong; instead we teach theories about what makes wrong things wrong, supposing that there are any wrong things.  This is called metaethics.  Well, there is a place for metaethics too.   But how is it usually taught?

Suppose we said that because in planning for the future, some people favor astrology, some throwing dice, and some the reading of entrails, we should therefore strike a “balance” among these three approaches.  Foolish, you say?  Maybe so, but that’s how metaethics courses are usually run.  Dab-of-this, dab-of-that approaches are widely used in medical, business, and law schools, and sometimes even the military academies.

The way it typically works is that mutually irreconcilable concepts of ethics are mined for nice thoughts such as justice, beneficence, and autonomy.  It would be one thing to say that justice, beneficence, and autonomy should always be observed, but instead they are supposed to be “balanced” against each other because they are interpreted as being in in conflict.  We are told, for example, that beneficence may sometimes require injustice.  “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”  Oh, please.  That is so last century.

This isn’t a theory, but a hodgepodge of theories.  Because it doesn’t require consistency, it provides endless opportunity for evasion.  If you don’t like what “value” A tells you to do about situation P, you can switch to “value” B.  If you don’t like what “value” B tells you to do about situation Q, you can switch to “value” C.  And if you don’t like what “value” C tells you to do about situation R – well, you can switch back to “value” A.

We used to call it being unprincipled.  Now it’s a methodology.