Background: Because of the increasing controversy over who should provide ethics consultations, this study investigated differences in the moral reasoning and moral orientations of physicians and clinical ethicists.
Method: From 1987 through 1990, extensive interviews were conducted with 39 physicians and 50 clinical medical ethicists (26 philosophers and 24 theologians) who were at 32 medical centers in 14 states from all sections of the United States. The interviews were used to gather selected demographic characteristics (age, gender, and profession--physician or ethicist) for the 89 individuals as well as to determine their scores for moral reasoning and moral orientation. Polyserial correlations and multivariant analyses were then performed between the demographic characteristics and the data on moral reasoning and moral orientation.
Results: The physicians consistently scored lower than the clinical ethicists in their moral reasoning skills in terms of both moral stage score (p < .01) and weighted average score (p < .01). However, the physicians were found not to be significantly different (p < .05) from the clinical ethicists in their moral orientations toward justice or care in terms of recognition, predominance, or alignment. No significant relationship was found between age and moral orientation. A significant relationship was found between age and stage of moral reasoning, with the older individuals scoring higher. No significant relationship was found between gender and stage of moral reasoning. A significant relationship was found between gender and moral orientation: the women were more likely to recognize elements of care in moral dilemmas and the men more likely to recognize elements of justice.
Conclusion: This study provides initial evidence that clinical medical ethicists, whether philosophers or theologians, may be better skilled than physicians to do ethicists consultations. To the extent that higher levels of moral reasoning correlate with superior skills in performing clinical ethics consultations, this study shows the value of bringing philosophers and theologians into the clinical setting.