Ethics and the Professions Summer 1998

Journal on current events in ethics and the professions

One quarter of your grade will be based on a journal, which I am asking you to keep, on issues in ethics and the professions that appear in the news.

The journal should consist of several entries in item/discussion format. An "item" should be from some current news (or commentary) source. In the journal it can consist of extensive quotations of the facts of the case or some or all of the article or transcript can be attached to the page. The source of the information should be indicated so that a reader may locate it. The "discussion," which should be at least a paragraph in length, should tie the item into something we have learned in the course (or something else particularly relevant to ethics and the professions). Your discussion should not simply be a summary of the item. You should discuss the issues you identify. Consider and evaluate various stands that one might take on the issue. Make and defend normative moral judgments about what was done, or should have been done, in the case.

The point of this notebook is to get you to think about the issues in this course and see their application to what goes on "out there in the real world."

Suitable Sources:

Suitable sources for relevant items are: newspapers (e.g., Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times), good news broadcasts (e.g., "60 Minutes," "Jim Lehrer Newshour," "Nightline"), television specials, good radio programs (e.g., "All Things Considered," "Morning Edition"), good magazines and journals (e.g., TIME, Journal of the American Medical Association), and good web sites (e.g. "Yahoo News", and "CNN Interactive" My experience is that "60 minutes" nearly every week has a long segment (about 15 minutes) on some issue in professional ethics and that "Jim Lehrer Newshour" has such a segment (perhaps 10 minutes) twice a week or more. Thorough reading of a good newspaper should provide at least two such items a week as well.

Look especially for issues in which some professional (doctor, lawyer, journalist, engineer, etc.) or public servant (judge, legislator, mayor) (or even some business) considered or took some action that might by some be regarded as morally proper and by others as morally improper.

Find items that are sufficiently substantial to raise several points of discussion. Any article shorter than two paragraphs is probably too brief. Don't be afraid to take a stand and defend it. Don't simply raise questions; provide some normative answers (viz. about what should be done).

News sources should be current or recent: nothing older than two months prior to the beginning of the term.


The notebook is worth 25 points. Each item/discussion entry is worth a maximum of 2.5 points. (So, to get the full 25 points you must have at least ten items over the course of the semester. You may choose to include more. The prudent student will do so.) To get any credit for an item, the item must be relevant to the course and you must offer some discussion of it. To get full (2.5 points) credit, the discussion must be informed and incisive. Partial credit will be given for discussion that does not explore the issue adequately.

The journals will be collected and graded twice in the semester. This will give you an opportunity to improve earlier entries if you have received less than 2.5 points on them. Such additions or changes should be clearly indicated. (See "Details" below.) (It is therefore wise to have several entries in the first reading of the journal.)

Details of the expected format:


I offer an example of an item and discussion that might appear in a journal for this course.

The "Liberace" example here is in one sense ideal because it is long enough to provide sufficient material for comment but short enough that one need not do much sifting to find the pertinent parts. On the other hand it is in one sense a difficult item to use as a sample because there is so much to say about it. There are questions relating to the professions of both journalism and medicine.

There are several issues that could (and should) be raised here:

Any of these might be discussed at some length.

(1) From the Arkansas Gazette Thursday, February 12, 1987, p.3A
Liberace's death raises questions over release of medical records

CHICAGO (UPI)--The public had no right to know Liberace died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, nor should anyone's medical records be released without the patient's consent, medical officials argued Wednesday.
   That right to privacy extends to celebrities, politicians and persons carrying the AIDS virus, and should never be abridged unless a substantial public health risk can be demonstrated, top experts from the American Medical Association and other health groups agreed in a public forum.
   Only a representative from the insurance industry offered a dissenting view, arguing corporations need such information to control health care costs and "it's foolish to assume that anything is private any more."
   Dr. James Todd, the AMA's senior deputy
executive vice president, defended the sanctity of medical records and chastized the media for its "insatiable desire to know what's going on."
   "Of what benefit is it to the general public to know that Liberace died of AIDS," Dr. Todd asked. "Is that useful in anything other than gaining front page coverage?
   Of what earthly benefit is it to have on national television the words that Mrs. McFarlane used when she was calling emergency medical services to come pick up her husband, [former national security advisor] Robert McFarlane, as he has attempted suicide? Is that necessary news, or is just sensationalism?"
   While acknowledging both were public figures, the panel suggested medical records should not be sued to quench a public appetite for information.
   "When you become a public figure, you do yield some of your right to privacy," Dr. Dennis O'Leary,
president of the Joint Commission on Accredidation of Hospitals, said. "But I don't think you automatically yield all your right to privacy."
   The medical records of public figures are not the only ones being breached, however, the panel said. Increasingly, sophisticated electronic systems have made such information available to insurance companies, corporations and sometimes even banks.
   "We're concerned that patients today don't even know how much their confidentiality is being eroded," Dr. Todd said. "Many don't realize when they sign some health insurance forms, they're signing away their rights."
   Dr. Todd said the issue of medical confidentiality has important implications in the quality of medical care.


      There are obviously several issues here related to ethics and the professions. There are questions of what rights people have to confidentiality of their medical records. Other questions may be raised about what news media should print (or broadcast) and whether they should restrict themselves to information that is "useful."

      One issue, which is not mentioned by any of those quoted in the article but obviously arises here, is whether any rights of confidentiality that a patient has die with the person. That is, does a patient's right to confidentiality extend past his death?

      It is hard to see how a dead person could have rights. Even if we allow that patients do have rights to confidentiality (in the sense that it is impermissible for doctors to divulge information to anyone not medically involved in the case), there is a further problem: When the patient has died it seems there is no one to have such (moral) rights. But if we allow that there are no such rights, then what is wrong with doctors divulging all sorts of "personal" information on people (not just celebrities) after they die?

      Consider the lead claim here: "The public had no right to know Liberace died of [AIDS], nor should anyone's medical records be released without the patient's consent ..." But even if we allow that the public did not have a right to know, it does not follow that we shouldn't know. All that follows is, at most, that no one has an obligation to tell us. After all, right correlate with obligations, so lack of a right to know correlates with lack of on obligation to tell. It does not follow from this that no one is permitted to tell us. Also, it is too late for dead people to consent to anything.

Richard Lee,, last modified: 27 May 1998