“Ethics is about what to do when ‘what to do’ is up to us,” quipped Dr. Daniel P. Sulmasy, capturing moral philosophy in a nutshell. His simple summary communicates a notion central to applied ethics, revealing how he spends half his time reflecting upon ethical theory. But one can imagine this skill of translating the complex into the clear morphs into an easy bedside manner that serves his patients well in the clinical practice that fills the other half of his days.
President Obama appointed Sulmasy to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) in April 2010. With an M.D. from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown University, Sulmasy’s academic career parallels the way he now splits his time. He currently holds the Kilbride-Clinton Chair in Medicine and Ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School and is Associate Director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics.
Even as a student at Cornell University Sulmasy knew he wanted to combine his interest in medicine with his commitment to a life of reflection. As a prerequisite for his studies in theology he studied philosophy, sparking his interest in the challenge of grappling with difficult ethical issues from multiple vantage points. His early experiences in medicine also shed new light on complex problems. Sulmasy recalled a singular moment during his time at New York Hospital as a young Cornell medical student. Upon evaluating a patient admitted to the emergency room, he was proud of his capacity to catch a new diagnosis—the spread of cancer to her spinal cord. But he was subsequently shocked by the neurologist’s perfunctory communication of the diagnosis, which left the patient stunned and alone to grapple with life-changing information. In that instant, he knew there was a better way to practice medicine, one that combines the expertise of the clinic and the insights of ethical reasoning.
For Sulmasy, this unusual combination of medical and philosophical training provides him with a set of skills through which to approach the issues addressed by the Bioethics Commission. For example Sulmasy reflected on the complexity of the Bioethics Commission’s report Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, which delineates this historic incident of intentional exposure of vulnerable populations to sexually transmitted diseases. This report, Sulmasy remarked, highlighted the question of which ethical standards we ought to employ when we retrospectively assess the behavior of those from a different time and culture. The answers to these complex questions are central to how we identify and learn from mistakes of the past.
Sulmasy believes that the Bioethics Commission members’ work is a reflection of the importance of interdisciplinary approaches—something he thinks will become increasingly important in bioethics more generally. “The future belongs to those who are dually trained,” he observed, acknowledging the capacity for such combinations of expertise and experience to help accomplish goals like those of the Bioethics Commission: to help examine and explore diverse perspectives, to engage and educate the public on bioethics issues, and to pursue international collaboration to advance ethically responsible practices and policies.