Bioethics Blogs

Oppositional words simplify thought: A or B?

Parties can stand in opposition to each other. But so can words. The word good stands in opposition to the word bad; the word right to the word wrong. And in everyday talk, the word human stands in opposition to the word animal.

Oppositional words are efficient in conversation. If I tell you that I saw an animal, you immediately know that it wasn’t a human I saw. Oppositional words are splendid communicational instruments. They enable quick inferences, like the one about what I saw and didn’t see.

However, oppositional words are not always good to think with. This sounds odd, because we associate thinking with inferences. If oppositional words support inferences, shouldn’t they be absolutely essential to thinking?

The problem is that oppositions support quick inferences, when we need slow ones. They assume a given order, when we need to explore a neglected order.

This we felt intensely at the seminar last Monday, when we discussed empirical ethics. More and more bioethicists do empirical studies (questionnaires, interviews, etc.) of how people look at medical research and care. Based on the empirical studies they then develop normative conclusions, for example, about how ethical guidelines should be formulated.

Empirical ethics thereby seems to sin against a fundamental opposition: that between is and ought. If it is a fact that people from time immemorial cut off the hands of thieves (and thought one should do so), it still does not follow from this fact that one ought to cut off the hands of thieves.

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.