Ethics and the university

University Affairs will be running a regular column on ethics and the university, authored by Queen’s philosophy professor Christine Overall. In the spring, I read skimmed a paper of hers Aging, Death, and Human Longevity: A Philosophical Inquiry, a fascinating book that “won the Canadian Philosophical Association’s 2005 book prize and the Royal Society of Canada’s Abbyann D. Lynch Medal in Bioethics in 2006.”

While Overall is a capable and deft ethicist, I have a small objection to her inaugural column where she outlines the topics she will be tackling:

Universities don’t usually have the professional equivalent of the clinical ethicist, the corporate ethicist or the government ethicist. The institution that purports to train ethicists for work in institutions throughout society does not itself feel a need to have its own ethicists.

This might be true, but nowhere does Overall mention the role of research ethics boards that are tasked with approving research, particularly research that will involve human participants. Ethics boards aim to ensure that researchers do not unduly influence the behaviour of participants, or expose them to risk. Though these boards have a narrow function, compared to the role an “ethics adviser” might play, it is a curious omission.