Bioethics Blogs

Does Bioethics Tell Us What to Do?

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

 Applied ethicists—including bioethicists—are in the business of making normative claims. Unlike, say, claims in meta-ethics, these are meant to guide action. Yet, when one examines the literature and discourse in applied ethics, there are three common barriers to these claims being action-guiding. First, they often lack precision and accuracy when examined under the lens of deontic logic. Second, even when accurately articulated in deontic language, they often fall into the category of claims about “permissibility,” a category that yields low utility with respect to action guidance. Third, they are often spectrum based rather than binary normative claims, which also yield low utility with respect to action guidance.

First, consider the concern about lack of precision under the lens of deontic logic. Deontic logic is a branch of logic that is concerned with the meaning of certain normative terms such as “permissible” (permitted), “impermissible” (forbidden, prohibited), “obligatory” (duty, required), “omissible” (non-obligatory), or “optional” (even “supererogatory”—beyond the call of duty). The traditional schema is as follows:

  • Something is permissible if and only if its negation is not obligatory.
  • Something is impermissible if and only if its negation is obligatory.
  • Something is omissible if and only if it is not obligatory.
  • Something is optional if and only if neither it nor its negation is obligatory.
  • Something is obligatory if and only if it is necessary for all normative demands to be met.

Yet, often claims made in the applied ethics literature do not map directly onto these deontic terms. For example, commonly used terms are “ethically acceptable,” “ethically problematic,” “ethically admirable,” “ethically justifiable,” “has a duty,” etc.

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.