Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

Methods and Discipline in an Interconnected Bioethics

In 2014, Bioethics on April 29, 2014 at 8:45 am

I’m writing this blog post in a rather august atrium in the University of Vienna (long story), but it actually relates to a talk I gave last week at Monash University’s campus in Prato. It was one of the most stimulating, fun, interesting, and generally enjoyable conferences that I’ve been to , and was the final meeting of a group led at Manchester, looking at the Human Body, its Scope, Limits, and Future (a project on which I was previously employed).

As well as four problem-led strands, considering questions such as the use of bodily materials and human enhancement, the project had a cross-cutting focus on methods in bioethics. Given some activity of mine in relation to this (most notably my co-editorship of a special issue of Health Care Analysis), I was invited to speak to this aspect of the project. I was delighted, but also a little daunted: whilst scholars such as Jon Ives, who was at the conference, and Mikey Dunn are very much ingrained in these discussions, I’ve had more of a ‘reflective’ and ‘external’ interest (hence my heavy use of scare quotes here, even by comparison to my generally high usage).

My talk took as its impetus a few themes, but a key one was found in (ahem) a slightly caricatured representation of a wonderful paper by my former colleague Iain Brassington. It’s a wonderful paper, but one whose emphases have me raise my own questions about what normative theory means within bioethics, and whether we should focus on what individual disciplines bring individually, rather than in some sort of conjoined activity.

Iain sees a great importance for philosophy in bioethics because (as do I) he sees bioethical analysis as being directive; action-guiding. His paper is available open-access, so I’d encourage readers to digest the full argument, but to reduce some of it to Iain’s own words: “philosophers are simply more likely to be good at thinking about problems of (say) justice and just policy than are non-philosophers, just as biologists are more likely to be good at thinking about problems in ecology” (p. 29).

I am not sure about this.

Part of the merit of philosophical analysis, for Iain, is that it allows abstraction from context and thus the better scrutiny of reasons. Yet I am not sure, when we think of ideas concerning obligation, that we can so easily segregate the world we are analysing into components that reflect the ‘silos’ that our disciplinary backgrounds sometimes purport to reflect. My own legal analysis is heavily influenced by works in moral and political theory. But it is also held in some sort of check by a reminder of Raymond Geuss’ pugnacious challenge to moral and political philosophy. When (as often happens in bioethics) the context of obligation is rooted in professional, legal, institutional, social, and other systems, abstraction can remove too much. And actually, despite Iain’s claim, I’m not convinced that philosophers particularly are better at the relevant kinds of conceptual and analytical methods. (It’s an interesting empirical claim, anyway.)

Without the sort of analysis that philosophers can bring, Iain sees a danger of bioethics become plain description or zealtory. And he closes his argument by suggesting that if others do bring the sort of analysis he’s speaking about, it’s probably philosophy that they’re doing after all. So philosophy keeps its pre-eminent position within bioethics.

For me, the importance of practicability in practical ethics suggests a need for much less of a focus on disciplinary prowess, and a far greater need to share ideas; to communicate between disciplines and with others (such as practitioners, folk in policy, and so on). This concept of public ethics resonates with Jonathan Wolff’s ideas, and Iain’s paper read in the light of Wolff’s work here gives, I would argue, a better idea of the role of philosophy within bioethics. The philosophical understanding is important, but no more important than that brought by other disciplines and some sort of qualified resignation to the status quo.

To be clear, my apparent bioethical ecumenicalism here is not based on a concern rooted in bland respect for different disciplines. Rather, it is based on the view that the universe, its orders, and its inhabitants are, when dragged into theory, conceptually a lot less crisp than abstracted normative analysis often allows. Disciplinary humility is as important as celebration of disciplinary advantage.

As for the upshot in regard to methods: for whatever it’s worth, my view is that there is so much that different disciplines can bring, and so many different sorts of problems to look at, that there is little good to be gained from finding the method for bioethics (not something, to be clear, that Iain was claiming to do). Rather, our focus is better placed on ways of approaching problems, and from there working towards the best engagement of collaborators. In this sense, bioethical analysis will not always require philosophers, and to be action-guiding will need normative theorists who are willing to come back from abstraction to a messy, complex, conceptually compromised world.

John Coggon

This week’s HEAL event: Ethics, Embryos and Evidence: A Look back at Warnock and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Acts

In 2014, Meetings, Reproduction, Research ethics on April 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

This week’s HEAL event is a joint Law School staff seminar/HEAL seminar, to be led by Dr Natasha Hammond-Browning speaking on ‘Ethics, Embryos and Evidence: A Look back at Warnock and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Acts’. This event will run from 1-2pm in rm 2055/4 (Law), Highfield Campus, on Wednesday 30th April. All welcome.

The law in England and Wales concerning embryo research, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, is considered by many countries to be a model to be followed in outlining their own embryo research legislation. The Act permits embryo research within a defined set of limits, thereby taking a controlled but permissive stance.

Although the legislation carefully controls the research which is undertaken with human embryos, there are many opponents of embryo research who would like to see such work outlawed. This paper examines how the UK legislation come to take such a permissive stance in an area which still raises controversy and around which there is a vast range of diverse ethical opinions. In order to determine how the legal stance that the UK currently has towards embryo research was reached, this paper examines the path to legislation, subsequent reform and considers how diverse ethical opinions were taken into account.

How and why do we value scientific freedom?

In 2014, Conferences, Gratuitous self-promotion, Publications on April 7, 2014 at 12:54 pm

With teaching over, it’s good to have a bit of time for writing and going to conferences. I’ve just got back from a trip to Rome, where I attended the third meeting of the World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research. The meeting is a key event hosted by the Luca Coscioni Association, which aims to eradicate undue bars to science and innovation. With Simona Giordano and Marco Cappato, I edited a book on Scientific Freedom following the first of these Congresses. As well as existing in hard copy, it is available here open access.

The Congress that just took place focused on the relationship between science and politics. In my own paper, I raised issues about the central place that the public interest should take in our analyses and evaluations of scientific freedom. This cuts against some of the received wisdoms amongst members of the scientific community, who are wary of the public interest (or in related literatures on the national interest). The wariness is born of concerns that the public interest will simply be given as a dogmatic, knock-down argument against good science, with no sound rationale behind it. Whilst we should be alive and responsive to such concerns, if we are to advance scientific programmes, we also need to be able to explain how these serve the public interest.

Scientific freedom is not just a ‘negative right’; a right to be left alone (and even in instances where it is, it can still impose positive claims and costs on the State and others). And really, advocates for scientific freedom are anyway asking governments not only to permit, but also to protect and indeed promote science. In doing this, we see important roles for law and regulation, providing both a shield, where defences are needed of scientific activity, and a stage, where publicity and education are needed. In my paper, I aimed to capture the reasons for this, and to explain that those in the scientific community need to understand why the public interest may at times legitimately constrain, as well as advance, science.

The event in its entirety was quite intense, with a great range of speakers and papers. Although it was built around a shared agenda, there was nevertheless a fascinating variety of perspectives. Furthermore, the span of insights afforded was astounding. Speakers included scientists and other academics, but also activists, politicians, people working in policy, journalists, and jurists. I left with a sense that many of the practical upshots of the meeting will arise as individual developments. ‘Science’ is vast and varied. But the general movement, and the added momentum that can be found when people with associated interests come together, will add to the power of such developments.

John Coggon