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Lessons from the Dalhousie Dentistry Scandal on Ethics Capacity Building and Moral Literacy

Posted by nte on May 26, 2016 in In Action

Meynell, L., & Krahn, T.M. (26 May 2016). Lessons from the Dalhousie Dentistry scandal on ethics capacity building and moral literacy. Paper presentation at the Canadian Bioethics Society 2016 Annual Meeting, Toronto, ON.


''In early December 2014, it came to light that some fourth-year students at Dalhousie University's Faculty of Dentistry . . . had been posting misogynistic, sexist, and homophobic comments and images to a closed Facebook group. In January 2015, Dalhousie's President and Senate approved the creation of an external Task Force to investigate what happened and why, investigate the culture within Dentistry, assess what can be learned, and make recommendations for how Dalhousie and other institutions might address similar issues in the future.'' So begins the first chapter of the Report of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in Dalhousie University Faculty of Denstistry. Particularly noteworthy is that the Facebook group members were fourth year students. They had been through a considerable amount of ethics training, which the Task Force found to be ''good courses'', albeit insufficiently integrated into the clinical component. The puzzle, and it is surely an urgent one for bioethics education, is to diagnose what went wrong. In this presentation we attempt to illuminate this issue through explaining the distinction between ethics capacity-building and moral literacy. Ethics capacity-building refers to the creation of the basic knowledge, institutional structures, strategies, and skills that help the members of an institution or a profession live up to their avowed moral values and explicit commitments. This includes familiarity with relevant codes of conduct and ethics review processes but is not limited to constructing and following good policies. To be effective, written rules need fair, rational, and accountable implementation and a culture that builds ethics capacity across the institution. Moral literacy is both more nebulous and more challenging, albeit no less essential to bioethics education. It is the awareness of and ability to interpret the many moral contours of daily life - to see practical issues through an ethical lens, sometimes referred to as moral perception. Moral literacy cultivates the moral emotions and challenges us to become responsive beings who consider the importance of who and what we care about. Moreover, moral literacy fosters the moral imagination and helps us to appreciate the many different ways of being in the world that are not our own. To be truly morally literate, one must have not only a sensitivity to difference through exposure to various culturally distinct approaches to ethics, but also knowledge of historical injustices and their many complex effects on the present - matters which are particularly important for moral understanding from within the context of privilege germane to dentistry and other health professions. The distinction between ethics capacity-building and moral literacy can both bring insight into the failings of Dalhousie's Dentistry programme and the challenges for the university, as Dalhousie attempts to respond to the problems of endemic misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and racism. This discussion also helps us to understand why throughout clinical practice training ethics capacity-building, though necessary, is insufficient for ethics education - it needs to be supported by moral literacy.