Bioethicists often make empirical studies of how the public, or relevant groups, perceive organ donation, euthanasia, or research participation; or how they perceive research that can be considered controversial, like embryonic stem cell research.
An objection to empirical bioethics sometimes made is that empirical evidence cannot settle ethical issues. Suppose a survey shows strong support for euthanasia among the public. Does that make euthanasia right?
No, it would be a joke to reason as if a survey gave evidence that euthanasia probably is right (but more studies are needed before we can be sure). Ethical issues are determined neither by vote nor by questionnaires or focus-group interviews.
So why are such studies conducted? How can empirical data serve as a basis for ethical reasoning? Have bioethicists begun to make the mistake of drawing conclusions from what is the case to what should be the case?
These questions appear fundamental. Are empirical methods legitimately used in ethics?
I think that examples of good uses can be given. A questionnaire or interview study with medical staff can exhibit ethical problems in health care practices that otherwise would have been unnoticed (like Mona Pettersson’s study of nurses’ experiences of do not to resuscitate orders). Empirical studies can also show how more values are at stake than those traditionally taken into account in bioethics. Many examples could be given, but let me instead use an analogy:
Suppose someone asks you for advice on a delicate matter. Will you not ask questions to that person, to better understand the context; what is at stake; what the actual problem is?
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.