Tag: ethical theory

Bioethics Blogs

In Defense of Intuition- Or, a Lesson for Empirical Bioethics

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

On March 17, 2016 philosopher Peter Railton delivered the Ethics, Politics, and Society lecture at Rice University. Railton is Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and John Stephenson Perrin Professor at The University of Michigan. His talk was titled, “Homo prospectus: A new perspective on the mind.”

Railton’s main aim was to counter a current trend in the social sciences that involves a distrust of our intuitive responses to the world. This skepticism has crept into moral philosophy as the empirical literature showing the effects of various framing effects on moral judgments increases. Philosophical ethics has had a heavy reliance on “thought experiments” whereby agents are posed with a moral dilemma and asked to make a decision about what ought to be done. Consider, for example, the trolley problem posed in part to help us evaluate consequentialism (i.e., a person is faced with a choice of whether to do nothing and allow a train to travel along a track to kill 5 people, or to flip a switch diverting the train onto another track where 1 will be killed). Neuroscience has shown that we prospect by making “mental models” during these judgments (predictive and evaluative models of the options). Of course, we are often not aware of the models themselves; what we are instead aware of is our intuition or “sense” that a certain choice is a good choice or the best option in the situation.

As mentioned, these intuitions are increasingly questioned. Return to the trolley dilemma just posed.

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.

Bioethics News

Bioethics and natural law: an interview with John Keown

Bioethics discourse is often divided into two broad categories: utilitarian perspectives and so-called deontological or Kantian approaches to ethics. An alternative viewpoint that receives far less attention is a natural law perspective on ethics and medicine. The natural law approach emphasizes interests or ends common to all members of humanity, and offers a teleological account of morality and human flourishing.

Professor John Keown of Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute for Ethics recently co-authored a book on natural law with the late Georgetown Professor Alfonso Gómez-Lobo. The book is entitled Bioethics and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Bioethics. The Deputy Editor of BioEdge, Xavier Symons, interviewed Professor Keown about his latest work. 

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Xavier SymonsWhat led you to write Bioethics and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Bioethics?

John Keown: The book was largely written by my distinguished colleague and friend, the late Professor Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, who held the Ryan Chair in Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy at Georgetown. Before his untimely death at the end of 2011, he had submitted a manuscript to Georgetown University Press. With the kind permission of his widow, and with the approval of the Press, I completed the project, incorporating amendments that he had indicated, in his comments on the referees’ reports, that he wanted to make, and some amendments that I thought appropriate. About a third of the book is material I added to his original manuscript. I thought it important, given the regrettable dearth of introductory books on bioethics from a natural law perspective, that his manuscript should be enlarged, updated and completed

What contribution do you think natural law can make to the field of bioethics?

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Four things Christians need to know about ethics #2

Understanding the problems of consequential ethics

Another very common ethical idea in our surrounding culture is that the morality of an action can be determined by its consequences. If one’s sense of morality is primarily based on feelings, but the there are situations in which feelings are unclear then one can look at the consequences of an action to determine if it is right or wrong. In moral philosophy this way of seeing ethics is represented best by utilitarianism, but for many in the culture around us the consequential ethics they use is not as well thought through as utilitarian ethical theory. It is primarily the simpler idea that one can morally justify doing something that would otherwise be wrong if the outcome is good.

This is not a way of thinking that is compatible with biblically grounded Christian ethics. We should be concerned about the consequences of our actions, but there is a clear understanding among Christian ethicists that consequential ethics can lead to many wrong moral decisions. The value and dignity of persons in the minority or otherwise on the fringes of society can be abandoned when decisions are made on the basis of the good of the majority. It does not fit with a biblical understanding of moral truth to say that we can do what is wrong to achieve a good outcome. The ends do not justify the means. Consequential arguments are commonly false rationalizations to justify ourselves for doing something we know to be wrong. King Saul tried to justify his disobedience of God’s command to kill the livestock of the Amalekites by saying that bringing the best of the animals home with him would allow him to give them to God as sacrifices.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Does Humanity Want Computers Making Moral Decisions?

Albert Barqué-Duran
Department of Psychology
CITY UNIVERSITY LONDON

A runaway trolley is approaching a fork in the tracks. If the trolley is allowed to run on its current track, a work crew of five will be killed. If the driver steers the train down the other branch, a lone worker will be killed. If you were driving this trolley what would you do? What would a computer or robot driving this trolley do? Autonomous systems are coming whether people like it or not. Will they be ethical? Will they be good? And what do we mean by “good”?

Many agree that artificial moral agents are necessary and inevitable. Others say that the idea of artificial moral agents intensifies their distress with cutting edge technology. There is something paradoxical in the idea that one could relieve the anxiety created by sophisticated technology with even more sophisticated technology. A tension exists between the fascination with technology and the anxiety it provokes. This anxiety could be explained by (1) all the usual futurist fears about technology on a trajectory beyond human control and (2) worries about what this technology might reveal about human beings themselves. The question is not what will technology be like in the future, but rather, what will we be like, what are we becoming as we forge increasingly intimate relationships with our machines. What will be the human consequences of attempting to mechanize moral decision-making?

Nowadays, when computer systems select from among different courses of action, they engage in a kind of decision-making process. The ethical dimensions of this decision-making are largely determined by the values engineers incorporate into the systems, either implicitly or explicitly.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Bioethics: The Revolution is Over

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

At the recent 17th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities, the association honored Baruch Brody with the Lifetime Achievement Award. During his address, Brody said that we are in the era of “normal” bioethics. The age of the revolutionary nature of this field is long over.

Brody talked about Thomas Kuhn’s, “The Structure of Scientific Revolution.” In this tome, Kuhn talks about two types of science—normal and revolutionary. Revolutionary science is what happens when an accumulation of data and observations shows that the world does not work as theory predicts. As an example, Kuhn talks about how when subatomic particles were discovered, the prevalent theory of physics—Newtonian physics—could not explain the behavior of these very small particles. This forced a creative revolution that led to the positing of quantum mechanics from which Einstein found the general theory of relativity and even today, physicists search for the grand unified theory.

But once a new theory is proposed and accepted, the work of science moves to normal science where the theory is further proven, refined and its implications and applications are explored. For example, in 2012 the predicted Higgs Boson was discovered at CERN. In 2011, the results of the Gravity Probe B project proved that Einstein’s predictions about the behavior of gravity around an object in space.

Brody described the founding of bioethics as a moment of revolution. Bioethics moved philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the clinic; it connected humanities scholars with government panels and the media; and it shifted the focus from doctors paternalistically making decisions to patient autonomy.

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.

Bioethics News

Interview: Daniel Callahan on communitarian bioethics

Daniel Callahan is one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary bioethics. He is the founder and president emeritus of the Hastings Center, and has written or edited more than 40 books. Most recently he published a memoir, In Search of the Good: A Life in Bioethics (MIT Press), and The Roots of Bioethics: Health, Progress, Technology, Death (Oxford University Press). He also has a forthcoming work, Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Disease, Food, Water, Chronic Illness, Obesity (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Recently he spoke with BioEdge about the state of the discipline today. 

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Xavier Symons: You were present at the creation, so to speak, of “bioethics” in the 1970s. Are you surprised at how prominent the field has become? Where will bioethics be in another 50 year’s time? Will it defy sceptics and survive and thrive?

Daniel Callahan: When my psychiatrist colleague Willard Gaylin and I created the world’s first research center on bioethics in 1969, the Hastings Center–even before the term bioethics had been invented—we were confident it would survive and flourish. By the 1960s research advances in medicine and biology were creating a surge of ethical problems and dilemmas,  from the beginning of life to its end, and much in between. At the same time health care costs were rising and straining national  government  budgets. Not only did the new technologies that generated most of the dilemmas improve health and extended life they no less raised costs, creating ethical issues of allocation.   

We were welcomed  by a number of prominent doctors and biology researchers, urging us on, but also with some worry and suspicion from others.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

The Age of Contractualism in Bioethics?

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

Various ethical theories underlie approaches to resolving bioethical dilemmas. Consequentialist theories hold that the moral evaluation of an action is based solely upon the goodness or badness of its consequences for all of the relevant parties. Deontological theories, on the other hand, hold that the moral evaluation of an action is based at least in part upon its intrinsic nature and its resulting conformity to moral rules. Popular deontological theories utilized in bioethics include Kantianism, Natural Rights theory, or theories about Special Obligations (e.g., physician fiduciary duties). One relatively neglected deontological theory that seems to underlie a significant amount of recent work in bioethics is Contractualism.

Contractualism is the view that actions are morally right if they are permitted by the rules that free, equal, and rational people would agree to live by. Contractualism takes the positions or policies adopted by various stakeholders coming together as constitutive of the political or moral law. I think it is fair to say that a major movement in bioethics, especially among the more empirically inclined bioethicists, is to gather various stakeholders together to reflect on pressing bioethical issues. Public opinion polls on ethical and policy issues, “Delphi processes” to establish recommendations or guidelines, qualitative research to elucidate the moral concerns and views of various parties, public town meetings, and the move to include various stakeholders (especially patients) in research (including bioethical research) funded by the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) all serve as examples. Convening of groups of people to agree on the identification of and sometimes resolution of ethical and policy issues is becoming an increasingly common methodological approach in bioethics.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Does it benefit a person to bring them into being?

Over the last four decades or so, philosophers have spent a good deal of time on this somewhat peculiar question. Why? After all, it’s not a question that people ordinarily ask, like ‘Do animals have rights?’ or ‘Is abortion permissible?’.The reason is that the answer one gives may have important implications for many such ordinary questions, such as ‘What duties do we have to future generations?’ or ‘What moral reasons are there for or against my having a child?’. For example, you might think that morality at least recommends, other things being equal, promoting the well-being of others. If you have a child, and you think that bringing someone into being benefits them, then you have done something recommended by morality.

It seems to me, however, that the question, and the way it’s often approached, can be a little misleading. First of all, we should distinguish between something that is merely good, and something that is ‘good-making’. Just recently, I had an experience that, I think, was good for me: sailing with my daughters. But this experience’s being one of sailing with my daughters isn’t what made it good. Indeed I can remember a similar experience in the past which wasn’t good. What made the recent experience good for me was, at least in part, its being enjoyable. Being enjoyable, that is to say, is a good-making property, whereas being an experience of sailing isn’t.

Which category does someone’s being brought into being come into? The same as sailing. Imagine that you bring someone into being, and they immediately die, their life having contained nothing plausibly good or bad except their having been brought into being.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Real change in food systems needs real ethics

Written By Paul B. Thompson

W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

This blog is a cross-posting from the OUPblog.

Please see the original post here: http://blog.oup.com/2015/06/food-systems-need-real-ethics/

In May, we celebrated the third annual workshop on food justice at Michigan State University. Few of the people who come to these student-organized events doubt that they are part of a social movement. And yet it is not clear to me that the “social movement” framing is the best way to understand food justice, or indeed many of the issues in the food system that have been raised by Mark Bittman or journalists such as Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, or Barry Estabrook.

Social movements attain what clarity of purpose they have because they have a morally compelling cause. The labor movement, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement had factions and divisions over strategy, tactics, or the value of subsidiary goals. But each was united by faith in the underlying justice of a unifying cause, however vaguely stated. There are a lot of things wrong with our contemporary food system, but that is about the only thing on which people enrolled in today’s food movement agree.

I would submit that the whole idea of a food movement came out of academia. First dozens and later hundreds of sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers have studied discontent and protest over food issues under aegis of social movement theory since the 1960s. Their work on the food system originated as studies on bona fide social movements: the labor movement (Caesar Chavez), the women’s movement (globally, most farmers are women), and the civil rights movement (slavery, sharecropping and the racialization of migrant agricultural labor).

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.

Bioethics Blogs

THE ETHICS OF EMBRYO EDITING

Darlei Dall’Agnol

 The British Parliament has, recently, passed Act 1990 making possible what is, misleadingly, called “three parents babies,” which will become law in October 2015. Thus, the UK is the first country to allow the transfer of genetic material from an embryo or an egg that has defects in the mitochondrial DNA to generate a healthy baby. As it is perhaps known, a defect in the mitochondrial DNA causes several genetic disorders such as heart and liver failure, blindness, hearing loss, etc. Babies free from these genetic problems are expected to be born next year. This is good news and shows how science and technology can really work for human benefit.

This procedure raised several concerns, but also revealed confusion and misunderstandings in public debates. There was the fear of opening the way to Nazi practices considered intrinsically immoral. This is certainly not the case since the prevention of mitochondrial defects does not, strictly speaking, involves any gene editing, which is a different kind of genetic engineering.[1] Now, embryo editing, which will be illustrated soon, does divide scientists and ethicists and needs further public debate. I will here present some real ethical concerns relating to embryo editing and to comment on the recent call, published by Nature, for a moratorium on the germline experiments.

To start with, let me ask: is mitochondrial DNA transfer a kind of eugenic procedure? Well, in the literal sense “Yes” (good genes), but it represents only what some bioethicists call “negative” or “curative eugenics” not positive enhancement. Now, leaving slippery-slope concerns aside for a moment, there is consensus among ethicists that negative eugenics is permissible and even morally required by the prima facie bioethical principle of non-maleficence, namely harm must be prevented.

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.