Bioethics, a humble servant to the queen?

Image taken from page 25 of 'The Men in the Moon: or, the 'Devil to pay.' With thirteen cuts [by George Cruikshank], etc. [A satirical poem-chiefly in reference to the proceedings of Messrs Cobbett, Hunt, and others.]'

The role of bioethics has been questioned in an op-ed by the silver-maned experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s piece has generated some heated online responses. While some commentators call for context and nuance in reading Pinker’s piece, others read it in the context of the turf wars over the role of science and the humanities in the modern production of knowledge. Pinker has held a lead role with #TeamScience in these disputes. Until recently, bioethics has been able to negotiate these wars by trying to get along with everyone. However, Pinker’s recent call for bioethics to “Get out of the way” and allow medical science to do its life-saving thing has publicly questioned whether bioethics is helping or hindering medical science.

A questionable lineage

In the not so distant past, theology and philosophy both laid claim to the title “queen of the sciences” – a claim that not many today would grant either. In terms of institutional and financial support, both are in the descent (see, see). This is not to say that we should smooth the pillow and send them off into the quiet night. Both will continue their important work, but many of the hangers-on will continue to retreat to other parties. Vice-Chancellors and politicians won’t be launching books or holding soirees to celebrate a new breakthrough in Hegelian scholarship, for instance.

While the social and economic capital of theology and philosophy declines, their child, Bioethics, is perhaps in a more opportunistic optimistic position. Since the 1970s bioethics has found a role in service of the new queen – medicine. Medicine fulfills the role once held by theology and philosophy in ordering the human sciences.* The importance of medicine and medical research in the modern university is unquestioned. In the same way theology was once essential to Oxford University; medical research has become essential for a major research institution to be taken seriously. Its role is more than this however. Medicine is not only greatly valued, but determines the value of other human sciences. The closer a discipline’s proximity to medicine and the goal of securing human health and preventing curing disease (see), then the greater the value of that discipline.

Bioethics has been placed, or placed itself, within and alongside medical research.

In the 1970s, philosophers and theologians offered initial responses to public scandals in research and clinical practice. For example, Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the US, the experiments on women with cervical cancer at New Zealand’s National Women’s Hospital, or the death of Jesse Gelsinger; who died while participating in a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania. Events such as these led to acceptance that ethical oversight of medical research and practice is essential. Ethics committees were established, and ethics education became standard for medical students and researchers. The success of these interventions has led Pinker to conclude that medical researchers have learned to behave and appropriate checks are now in place. Therefore the shackles of bioethics can be loosened.

Keeping medical research “in check” is only part of the story.

A role also opened up for bioethics centres and bioethicists to calmly communicate breakthrough medical research to anxious publics. In Australia, Monash University established the Monash Centre of Human Bioethics in 1980 with Peter Singer as Director. The initial role of the centre was to promote the rapidly advancing research in artificial reproductive technologies at Monash University. Alan Trounson, the former director of the Monash Centre for Early Human Development, recalls:

I had to sort myself out in the early days just like anyone who works in a new area involving something like human embryos. If we hadn’t had Peter Singer around in those days I think we might not have pursued some things to the extent that we have.

Singer, among others, helped further the research of Trouson and his colleagues by communicating to the public that the moral status of an embryo is not something to be concerned about and that so called “test-tube” babies are just fine.

Pinker believes that it is time for bioethics to “get out of the way”. However, rather than saying “stop”, a lot bioethicists have arguably greased the wheels of medical science and widened societal ethical boundaries to allow more and more research to be done. So perhaps in this case, what Pinker meant to say was not “get out of the way”, but “get in your place! Tell the public that editing genomes is not to be worried about because biomedical research is progressing and soon disease will be regressing”.

*This is not to suggest a neat linear progression from theology to philosophy to medicine. The effects of theology, for instances, are still very present in philosophy and medicine (and bioethics).

E.O. Wilson, Eusociality & the Limits of Science

While a post-doc at Penn State (2011-13), renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson gave a lecture on eusociality – an understanding of the evolution of social cooperation and alturism among insects, such as ants, through: i) cooperative care of offspring; ii) overlapping generations within a colony of adults; and iii) a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Wilson extends these observations to human interactions and evolution.

To explain the link to human sociality, Wilson used Paul Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” According to Wilson, Gauguin’s three questions are the central questions of religion and philosophy. However neither is equipped to answer them.


“Paul Gauguin – D’ou venons-nous” by Paul Gauguin – Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilson asserts that religions do not have the necessary scientific understanding of the universe. And since the decline of logical positivism, philosophy has “scattered in a kind of intellectual diaspora and into those areas not yet colonized by science”. Not afraid of a non-sequitur, Wilson concludes – “by default therefore, the solution to the great riddle, if it has an answer, has been left to science”.

Wilson claims that eusociality and evolutionary biology provide the best answer to Gauguin’s questions. Rather than address the veracity and usefulness of Wilson’s eusociality, I want to focus on the type of answer that Wilson’s eusociality is and whether it address Gauguin’s questions.

Continue reading →

Continental Philosophy and Bioethics: Part 1 – Challenges and Dissmissals

Both bioethics and continental philosophy are outliers of “mainstream” philosophy. However, their shared outlier status has not resulted in camaraderie but mutual suspicion, if not contempt. Brian Leiter describes bioethics as possessing a “dim reputation in academic philosophy”.[i] While bioethicists such as Daniel Callahan describe continental philosophy “as not philosophy at all”.[ii]

Perhaps the intention of these comments is to dismiss rather than challenge continental philosophy or bioethics, but I have taken them as a challenge. I am not interested in defining these disciplines or academic fields; especially as the work of philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas or Jeffrey Bishop demonstrates the artificial nature of the boundaries surrounding these classifications. However, there is a general bar or faculty room acceptance of Leiter’s characterization of bioethics and Callahan’s assessment of continental philosophy. Depending on philosophical predilections Leiter’s remark may have raised a smile or Callahan’s evaluation a smirk. As someone trying to simultaneously swim in the continental and bioethics streams I find these comments frustrating, yet acknowledge the pressing challenges issued in both.

The challenge issued to bioethics from philosophy, not just from Leiter but a host of others, can be summarized as: (i) bioethics is too close to industry (broadly construed); (ii) bioethics is philosophically limited; (iii) bioethics is philosophically monotonous.

The challenge issued to continental philosophy from bioethics, and again not just from Callahan, can be summarized as: (i) continental philosophy is too theory-laden; (ii) continental philosophy is too descriptive and lacks normative application; and (iii) continental philosophy cannot be translated into policy.

In response, I do not intend to merely defend these academic fields, but acknowledge the challenges and suggest that despite apparent opposition they can fruitfully support each other and produce important analytic insights and ethical engagements.

[i] Brian Leiter, “American Journal of Bioethics, Redux: Is this for real?Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, 2012, . [Accessed on December 3, 2012].

[ii] Daniel Callahan, The Roots of Bioethics: Health, Progress, Technology, Death  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 9.