What is Bioethics? A Conversation – By Professor Grant Gillett

Professor Grant Gillett has kindly offered us his more than half-baked conversation on ‘What is Bioethics?’  Comments and feedback are welcome.

A: Bioethics, what is that? Philosophy I know, psychology I know, sociology I know, even anthropology I have a passing acquaintance with although I do not like to admit to it in proper academic company, but what, in the name of Plato, Descartes, Russell, Popper, Chomsky, and Durkheim, is bioethics?

C: Quite a few names you have dropped there – almost a heap.

A: Perhaps in your slight attempt at wit you do not quite grasp the metaphysical significance of Sorites paradoxes.

C: Now, now, don’t get your knickers in a knot, or is it a very slight Mobius in your boxers.

B: Hey you two, stop all that point scoring. Bioethics is quite exciting – it is a careful critical inquiry into the assumptions and implications of the biomedical sciences.

C: Oh so, just more of the same old boys finding something else to gas on about.

A: I resent that, we stand for academic rigour and excellence but some of the tripe I have read in Bioethics is just doctors and other do-gooders trying to wax lyrical about their good intentions. Goodness and truth can only be established through analysis and logical criticism, perhaps of what we approve or is conducive to pleasure rather than pain.

C: And what exactly do you make of the good sadist, or masochist for that matter. Or what sense of goodness would you apply to a person who thought it good to have a healthy leg removed or to become like a pure childlike version of themselves because the developed female body held certain threats for them?

B: Yes, that’s the sort of thing that really grabs me – how do you even start?

A:  You start by clarifying your terms – for instance good can only be defined in relation to the biological species homo sapiens and once we have a clear specification of a creature of that natural kind then the way is fairly straightforward to trace out what such a creature ought to think about this or that fact situation and what counts as truly good.

C:  A few problematic terms seem to have crept in there – natural kind, species, biological, ought, truly and good, for a start.

B: Oh … they all sound sort of Ok to me.

A: I agree there are different theories about each of them but clarifying their logic is what philosophers do and clarifying their accepted usage is what sociologists and other social scientists, when they are sticking to their job, do.

C: Really – well what about “biological” when we turn to human beings?

B: Yes that seems OK – biology is a matter of the structure and function of the human body.

A: I agree.

C: Oh, so you do not include our adaptation to the world around us, as in ecology or as shown by the findings of archaeology?

B: I suppose that all creatures are adapted in some way – but isn’t that just part of their function?

A: And functional structure – a matter for natural science to tell us about and philosophers to use in analysis, for instance in philosophy of biology or philosophy of mind.

C; What about philosophy of science and philosophy of medicine or psychiatry?

A: Well there the natural sciences are what most concerns us.

B: But wait a minute, there are some problems about what is real and what is just a picture or a model –  so – about the way that our knowledge cannot be just held apart from and compared with things as science paints them to be.

C:  A palpable hit! What, for instance, do we say about the evident fact that human beings often adopt an understanding of their own nature that is prevalent in their society and base their conceptions of human good on that so that their adaptation is not to a natural world at all but to a world they have transformed into an artefact of their own making?

A: I agree that those pose minor problems for objective analysis.

C: Just, I suppose, as the elephant in the room is a minor problem if nobody mentions it?

B: Yes, it does make it difficult to use the term “natural” or even the term “biological” because, when you think of it, evolution itself is a historical phenomenon and culture forms a significant component of human evolution, so some kind of critical inquiry into culture seems to be part of any informed understanding of the human condition.

A: Hold on, hold on, I think we can all agree that there is a world out there and human beings and they have brains which are the basis of their psychology and all these things can be rigorously investigated and the results critiqued for logical consistency and coherence by suitably disciplined philosophical argument.

C: Well, I don’t want to be just an irritating gadfly here but I find even that a little hard to agree upon as the basis of our inquiry.

A: How so?

C: Well take one example – the truth about the human condition. Now that is expressed in statements is it not?

A: Yes, of course, it is the propositions expressed and their logical relations that need to be clarified so that we can investigate the relevant theories and their truth.

C: Oh, I see, we build worlds of possibility – let us call them possible worlds – out of the elements that appear in propositions and the logical relations between them?

A: Precisely – then we use premises to derive conclusions and look at the soundness of the arguments.

B: Yes, that sounds like what we did in our basic courses on metaphysics and epistemology.

C: But wait a minute – consider the following syllogism based on what we have just said.

  1. All worlds including the actual world must be possible worlds.
  2. Possible worlds are constructions out of our ideas and the logical relations between them. Therefore
  3. The actual world is a construction out of our ideas and the logical relations between them.

B: That sounds wrong.

A: It is wrong – it’s just plain wrong.

C: Explain

A: Well … it’s not easy.

C: Well why don’t we start with something more basic – “I think therefore I am.”

B: Yes, that is really basic – it’s the beginning of everything really.

C: But hold on for a minute, doesn’t it assume that we already know what it is to be – so that we know what we are saying when I say “I am”?

A: That’s what science tells us.

B: Yes surely science is a way of investigating what there is?

A: Not quite – that is what we do in ontology.

C: And science is decidedly unhelpful there if I am correct. For instance science cannot tell me the difference between a thing – like an object or a particle and a state of things like a wave or a probabilistic set of energy states that may or may not collapse into a determinable form.

A: Well no … but …

C: In fact scientists cannot even come to an adequate idea as to how things are connected with one another such as a particle and its remote antiparticle whereby a measurement on one then determines the state of the other but not through any causal connection.

A: That is indeed a puzzle. But, look here; for the purposes of biology and medicine and such like we have got a fairly clear idea of truth of the kind I sketched above and we can all agree on it on the basis of the evidence of experience.

B: That at least seems clear – I remember that from Kant – a thing is objectively true if two observers would converge on their judgments about it – a kind of triangulation.

C: Well, much as I admire the old Prussian, that’s not really going to help.

A & B: How is that?

C: Consider that if we take a common idea like the idea that there is some divinely ordained meaning to human life – most of the human race agree that it is true including a majority of the most educated nation on the earth (although many of them would express it in quite a red-necked way) but that does not seem to be a good reason to accept it as true.

A: Of course not.

B: But then what do we do – if purely logical analysis is going to come up short and sociological facts like majority consensus is not going to help, where do we go from there?

C; That is problematic, it seems we have to engage in some kind of critical analysis of our ways of thinking that does not just assume the naïve methods of logic, nor accept the truths that seem to emerge from psychology, even where they seek (democratic) support in numbers. I think we are committed to a more difficult path of taking what we say apart and looking at it in terms of how we got to say such things, what games we are playing, what powers are we trying to exert or define or defend, what agendae or results are we aiming at, the ways that our routes of inquiry conditioned the end-points at which we are likely to arrive – all that seems to me to be fair game.

B: But that’s all so cerebral and almost cynical – what’s the point.

A: I agree – you have to stand somewhere, surely you can do no other.

C: I also agree, but you need to be able to reflect on why you are standing just there and that reflection might take you into many lines of inquiry – psychology, sociology, education, political critique, the deconstruction of language and meaning, even an attempt to devise a discipline specific to locating human beings in a complex world in which mirrors and what they reflect cannot be wholly separated.

A: That is all too cute and complicated for me – give me plain speaking and plain thinking, simple methods of documenting what is real.

C: Which would be fine if what was real was simple and plain but I am afraid that train has left the station.

B: So what is bioethics after all that?

C; I guess it cannot help but be multidisciplinary, problematising and interrogating the illusions of certainty that we all crave for and the simple unexamined intuitions of good and bad that we probably share with our primitive forebears. I guess it also has to look awry at everything that proclaims itself as the plain truth or a clear cut method of inquiry.

A; You mean messy thinking.

C; I guess so if that is what it takes to try and get to grips with a messy world.


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