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A Network for Practical Ethics

Georgetown has a glorious heritage in helping the world grapple with common life activities that pose ethical issues. Notably, such translation of theories of ethics to practical guidance was the lifeblood of the development of bioethics in the 20th century. Georgetown played a large role in this development. Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics (KIE) was the home of a collection of Georgetown scholars, supplemented with visitors, that developed the key conceptual framework of bioethics. It became the repository of the scholarly literature in the field (spawning the Bioethics Library in Healy Hall). The 21st century world faces more calls for ethical guidance for daily decisions.

A recent external review of the ethics at Georgetown praised the past role of Georgetown in practical ethics and stimulated internal discussion of how Georgetown might extend its influence in the area. It’s time to note the progress of faculty developments on this front.

Georgetown is building a much more elaborated network of practical ethics centers. Under the directorship of Dan Sulmasy for the Kennedy Institute of Ethics expansion beyond philosophy as a base discipline to other fields that have contributed to practical ethics has been launched. This enhances the natural development of the KIE faculty to fields beyond bioethics. In a new collaboration between the Georgetown University Medical Center and the Main Campus, the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, led by Myles Sheehan, SJ, will have a two-site feature – collocated in Healy Hall with KIE and continuity of a footprint in the clinical setting of GUMC. The university recently announced the creation of a donor-funded Environmental Justice Program, led by Gaël Giraud, SJ. Finally, Georgetown is moving ahead to establish a Center for Digital Ethics.

The philanthropy associated with these efforts will increase the tenure-line and research faculty sizes of Georgetown. Two tenure-line searches are being mounted for the KIE, with multiple departments as possible tenure homes. Three tenure-line searches are being mounted for the Center for Digital Ethics, with possible tenure homes in philosophy, computer science, Communications Culture and Technology, Law, and potentially others. Starting in academic year 2022-2023, two tenure line searches will be mounted to help build out the Environmental Justice Program. Georgetown thus is renewing and expanding the faculty talent in practical ethics with a wider aperture than in the past.

Each of these centers has its own mission and intellectual focus. Yet, they are synergistic. For example, climate change will likely induce the spread of diseases formerly geographically isolated to more and more areas. The protection of the health of disadvantaged populations will be challenged. Bioethical issues within the epidemiological domain will again come to the fore. Similarly, the use of digitized medical records for machine learning algorithms can be used for both good and harm. What guidance should be forwarded to patients by bioethicists in clinical practice?

Because of these potential synergies, an organization structure to enhance collaboration among the centers is important. Hence, the current leadership of the centers is building the Georgetown Emergent Ethics Network, a collection of four different centers — KIE, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, Environmental Justice Program, and the Center for Digital Ethics. Joint appointments across the centers can enhance collaborations. Creation of postdoctoral, predoctoral, and undergraduate research assistantships that span the Centers can lead to senior faculty collaborating with a cohesion that comes from sharing the mentorship of a young colleague. Links between the Centers and degree programs enhances their impact (e.g., the new major in Computer Science, Ethics, and Society). Shared administrative infrastructure can allow the individual centers to devote more resources to programming and less to support functions.

Networks thrive when each of the nodes conclude that they can achieve greater success linked to other nodes. This seems to be a powerful argument for a network of units devoted to greater societal impact in practical ethics. We look forward to welcoming new colleagues devoted to practical ethics within new domains.

One thought on “A Network for Practical Ethics

  1. Great update. i am glad to see starting more collaboration between the various centers. Especially between the Kennedy and Pellegrino Centers. Even being at GU, i have been confused about the differences. Many outside the University express confusion about who to call about what ethical issues at Georgetown. I’m glad these steps are being taken to increase collaboration. This will begin to address all the confusion about Ethics on the hilltop. Well done and best of luck. Go Hoyas Ethics !

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