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SA pioneers a centre for ethical debate

Emeritus Professor Robert CrottySomething novel has just happened in the SA university sector. Against all the odds, the Ethics Centre of South Australia (ECSA) has been set up across the three universities and with the support of the State Government. Emeritus Professor Robert Crotty reports.

Academics from UniSA, Flinders and Adelaide Universities together with professionals from the State Government, particularly the Department of Health, are pooling their expertise and interests in the fields of ethical theory and ethical issues.

So why an Ethics Centre and why just now?

Most people have their own ideas about what is right, what is wrong and how the difference between one and the other can be resolved.

At any contemporary dinner table there can be a quick cut in the conversation to the abortion debate and the use of the RU486 drug, to the printing of the Danish cartoons that depict Muhammad, to euthanasia, and to the use of bribes in international trading. Then there are same sex marriages and border security versus the right to seek asylum. Even if, ethically, a dinner guest might be in favour of an issue, should it be legitimated in law? Should the state, in fact, allow anything that is ethically acceptable?

It certainly raises the tone of mealtime conversation. But it also underlines the very many issues that demand ethical consideration.

Meantime, Pope Benedict XV, in a recent pronouncement, claims to have sufficient control of ethical principles and their foundation to be able to condemn modern societal values outright as the "filth around us" and has asked God to "free us from our decadent narcissism".

Such papal confidence in an ethical theory and such a negative evaluation of society are not new. In the fourth century BCE, Plato had similar confidence, being a moral absolutist who was sure that valid moral knowledge was actually encoded into the universe. He was able to condemn Athens as an immoral place because of the ethical scepticism of its sophist philosophers.

The establishment of ECSA does not presuppose that the problems of ethical debate can be so easily solved or that ready answers can be provided for the dilemmas that so often occur in society over what is right and what is wrong. Far from it. It is intended that ECSA should glory in ethical diversity.

There will be ethicists within ECSA who are utilitarians, deontologists, virtue ethicists, postmodernist ethicists. There will be ethicists whose vantage point will be feminist ethics, Indigenous ethics or environmental ethics. Within its fold, genuine dialogue can hopefully take place that will promote ethical understanding and perhaps unearth new challenges. Its purpose is not to solve ethical problems but to raise ethical consciousness.

ECSA’s researchers, regardless of their university connection, will be able to explore ethical issues in seven broad research areas: public policy, professional practice; research ethics; science and technology; health care; Indigenous ethics andethical theory.

Within these research themes ECSA academics will promote discussion and understanding of ethical issues in the South Australian community. ECSA will be available for comment on the ethical aspects of public policy and will contribute to academic and community debate on ethical issues. Research theme groups, directed by acknowledged leaders in the field, will also foster research projects, make contributions to postgraduate education options and will endeavour to attract research degree candidates.

To return to the opening question – why an Ethics Centre and why just now?

ECSA exists to provide a forum for ethical discussion within a pluralist society in SA. It has been established at a time when ethics has become an urgent issue in society and the need for a forum is more and more appreciated.

Why in SA? The three universities in this state, together with elements of the State Government, have acknowledged the initiative and its value and, with commendable foresight, have agreed to set up a cross-institutional entity that, in many ways, breaks down existing barriers to cooperation. The future will prove whether the confidence in this venture has been well-founded.

Prof Crotty is Director of the Ethics Centre of South Australia, email: robert.crotty@ecsa.edu.au