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


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