The increased presence of moral consultants, or bioethicists, within hospitals and clinics in the last two decades has begun to raise questions about their sources of authority and norms of practice. Under pressure from critics in the social sciences, a number of bioethicists have recently raised the ideal of democratic deliberation to defend and reconstruct their place in the medical field. This article sheds light on these developments by placing bioethics in a historical context that shows an early tension between bioethicists as whistle-blowers and bioethicists as incremental reformers of medical practice. This article also develops a conceptual framework for analysis that indicates how such tensions have grown more complicated for contemporary bioethicists because they occupy a fluid and structurally ambiguous role in which there are multiple sources of normative expectations and little guidance for meeting these expectations. The liminality of the role and the overload of expectations have made bioethics vulnerable to methodological criticisms from social scientists. This article concludes that such methodological criticisms cannot address the more systemic problems of liminality and overload. The ideal of democratic deliberation, though imperfect, does address these systemic problems because it shows bioethicists how to gain guidance and share responsibility for moral consultation.

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