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Demagogues, Firefighters, and Window Dressers: Who Are We and What Should We Be?



The growing interest in bioethics has given rise to a new group of experts: experts in bioethics. They come from different walks of life and their motives, claims, and qualifications for expertise are manifold. Various academic disciplines can be said to contribute to one's status as an expert in bioethics. Studies and research in, say, philosophy, law, anthropology, history, theology, and sociology with an emphasis on bioethical matters are often thought of as suitably qualifying a person as a bioethicist. In addition to these academic qualifications there are two routes to becoming a bioethicist. I will call these the self-nomination (self-styled) and the through-work-experience routes. Self-nominated expertise is most common with medics who have strong religious or other ideological views about ethical matters. Another path to self-nominated expertise starts with strongly held ideological views with interest in bioethical matters. For this category of bioethical experts there does not have to be any institutional acknowledgment of their status; they are experts because they think they are. The other nonacademic type of expert in bioethics emerges through administrative channels. When the various ethics committees and regulatory bodies that now abound were first founded, there were no experts in bioethics to sit on these committees. People became experts by serving in these institutions for sufficiently long periods of time. This still happens with ethics committees in which just a few of the members are experts in ethics. People join the committees as experts of other fields, but are thought to have become experts through the fact that they have served on such committees.



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