Wednesday, January 07, 2015

New Year ruminations on global bioethics

The New Year is a good time to reflect on where one has been and where one is going. What have I accomplished or failed to accomplish? What can I do better? It is hard to know whether Julian Savulescu wrote his recent essay in the Journal of Medical Ethics (‘Bioethics: why philosophy is essential for progress’) in a bit of a fin d’annee funk. But it certainly sounds like it: his conclusion is that bioethics and medical ethics as fields have largely failed, and he seriously doubts that he as a bioethicist has made much of a positive impact over the past two decades. What is the malaise, and what is the antidote?
According to Savulescu, bioethics and medical ethics have failed because the philosophical engine that powers ethics has been allowed to wither. In fact, much of his article is devoted to deftly exposing what he considers crappy ethical reasoning. While one may not be a fan of Savulescu’s brand of consequentialism, and/or why he thinks certain positions are untenable, you cannot fault him for failing to present clear ethical arguments in support of his views. This is part of his point: bioethics is being overrun by intellectual laziness in the form of unreflective adherence to ethical-sounding catch phrases (‘humans have dignity’), slavish appeal to existing codes and regulations, or failures to distinguish empirical claims from normative ones. The paragraph that really struck me was the following:
I left a promising career in medicine to do bioethics because I had done philosophy in 1982 and attended Peter Singer’s lectures in practical ethics. The field was new and exciting and there were original proposals and arguments. Singer, Glover, Parfit, Lockwood and others were breaking new ground, giving new analyses and arguments. Now medical ethics is more like a religion, with positions based on faith not argument, and imperiously imposed in a simple minded way, often by committees or groups of people with no training in ethics, or even an understanding of the nature of ethics.
The remedy for this, according to Savulescu, is to go back to basics. Bioethics is a branch of ethics. Ethics is a philosophical discipline, and philosophy (certainly in its Western, Socratic form) is all about critically examining claims and offering the best arguments one can. 

To the extent that Savulescu’s diagnosis is right, bioethics may be in globally rough shape. To make my own start-of-the-New-Year confession, I have been involved with initiatives to strengthen bioethics in sub-Saharan African countries for a decade now. One of the greatest challenges faced by those initiatives is to stimulate critical philosophical thinking. Trainees often expect the ‘right answers’ or ‘correct values’, which are then to be applied mechanically to particular problems.  This may be due to educational systems that elevate professors high above students, and encourage learning by rote while downplaying critical engagement with what is being taught. In addition, I have found that much of the interest in ‘bioethics’ in developing countries too often boils down to the (institutional) interest in establishing and sitting on research ethics committees. Whatever the causes of the trend may be, the net result may be the globalization of a diluted bioethics that ‘is more like a religion.’ Those of us involved in such initiatives need to seriously reflect on this phenomenon, to what extent we contribute to it, and what can be done to minimize or counteract it.

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