IN a society as morally perverse and corrupt as ours, does a centre of ethics have any relevance? A cynic’s answer would be a resounding ‘none whatsoever’. The idealist/reformer would say, ‘all the more’. That is a dilemma that faces all activists in this country seeking to light the spark of change.
In this context, the SIUT’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture (CBEC) faces a daunting challenge. It has been struggling for the last 13 years to introduce an ethical perspective not just in healthcare but also in the non-medical sector. Its endeavours became meaningful and received international recognition when last week WHO declared the CBEC a Collaborating Centre for Bioethics — one of the eight to receive that prestigious status worldwide.
Being a part of the SIUT which has a reputation for impeccable integrity, the CBEC’s role as a purveyor of ethics has been accepted nationally. Establishing itself as an institution which can make an impact has been a Sisyphean task. The CBEC’s website describes its objective as serving as an academic and intellectual resource to impart ethics education to healthcare communities and beyond, and to conduct research to explore the role of religious and cultural norms as well as socioeconomic realities in shaping value systems.
Had ethics taken root, we would not be witnessing bigotry.
This is the need of the hour if the moral decadence that has set in is to be countered and reversed. Dr Adib Rizvi, founding director of the SIUT who conceptualised the centre, feels that his institution can play this vital role because it observes ethical principles in its own working and dealings and therefore has credibility. “Besides, we hope to bring ethics back into public focus as it has been erased from people’s collective memory that every society must have a moral standard of right and wrong.”
A beginning has been made. Dr Farhat Moazam, the chairperson of the centre, is confident. She believes her team, which she has built assiduously, has already made a beginning by training over 100 people — mostly doctors but others as well — in their Master’s, post-graduate diploma and certificate programmes. The graduates are expected to return to their own institutions and disseminate the message of ethics there.
The CBEC claims that an impact is being made. The ethics teaching process has begun with a number of bioethics units being set up all over the country and the subject being formally incorporated in the curricula of some medical universities. But most interesting is the feedback of the alumni. They speak of the “broadening of their thought process”, having learnt “a new language”, having “grown an extra conscience”, having become “flexible” in their approach and having won the confidence of their patients.
These are the changes that are needed in Pakistan on a wide scale. Had ethics taken root in our society we wouldn’t be witnesses to horrendous crimes such as the killing of Mashal Khan and Sabeen Mahmud who paid with their lives for their views and became the victims of bigotry. Neither would hundreds of Shias and Ahmedis have been murdered because of their beliefs. The fact is that we are increasingly becoming an intolerant nation and ethics has been thrown to the winds.
One may feel that the CBEC should concentrate on medical malpractices rather than take too much on its plate. The centre is primarily working to introduce the ethical dimension of medicine. There is a lot of talk about ethical dilemmas and how they should be handled. But a physician is first a human being. How can one turn an unethical man into an ethical physician? The human being has to be treated as a composite whole and so must ethics be regarded as one body of values and morality that governs every aspect of life. Therefore, it is commendable that the CBEC is inclusive and focuses on all professions — including school teachers, students and an army officer.
Why not? Our school curricula do not teach ethics as a subject except to non-Muslim students who are exempted from Islamiat. By not teaching Muslim students ethics we are failing our youth in a big way as is apparent from the chauvinistic and dogmatic mindset that is being cultivated among them.
The centre clearly establishes that it is possible to apply theoretical knowledge to present-day realities and derive our sense of right and wrong from multiple sources. For that, as Dr Moazam says, one has “to engage critically with human morality — the philosophical, the religious and the social” while challenging dichotomies such as secular/religious, East/West, liberal/traditional.
It is important that ethics be taught by encouraging civil discourse despite differences and requiring students to ask questions so that they are convinced about the truth of the values they are being asked to imbibe. Thus alone will the distinction between good and bad be ingrained in them.