Methodology in Philosophical Bioethics: a special issue of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics

The issue of the second quarter of 2011 of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics presents an original focus on methodological issues in philosophical bioethics. Guest editor is John Coggon, Research Fellow at the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation, School of Law at the University of Manchester, and -at the time of writing- a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, working in issues relating to public health law and ethics.
In his editorial, Coggon writes that, as bioethics is a “field of disparate disciplines”, it is not always clear what role the philosopher plays in the wider scheme”. As a consequence, there can be difficulty in finding sound resolution between the competing perspectives, with the result of an “apparent deadlock, with theorists seemingly able only to talk across each other”. Therefore the need of a special issue devoted to analyzing the different available methodologies in philosophical bioethics. Different authors take different -sometimes even very different!- stances on this point, as it becomes evident from the contribution of the special issue. Many of the articles take as a starting point of their analysis the book “Rationality and the genetic challenge: making people better?” by Matti Häyry (Cambridge University Press 2010), also at the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation in Manchester.
Among the contributors, Søren Holm, (Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, School of Law, University of Manchester) argues that bioethics is, as is moral philosophy in general, a field spanning a range of different philosophical approaches, normative standpoints, methods and styles of analysis, metaphysics, and ontologies. Holm also argues that the categorization of individual philosophers or specific arguments into a relatively small number of categories (something very common nowadays in bioethics, of which the book by Häyry is an example) can be an useful tool to introduce some kind of “order” in an otherwise “messy” (my qualification) field.
The book by Häyry does so by identifying three ways to deal with what he considers the challenges of “genethics”, namely pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) , the possibility to design children, savior siblings, reproductive cloning, human embryonic stem cell (hES) research, gene therapies, and considerable life extension techniques, which he refers to heuristically as neo-consequentialism, neo-virtue ethics, and neo-deontology. Putting aside the question of whether such labeling is correct (the contributions to the issue by John Coggon and by John Harris tackle this issue), Häyry’s main claim is that it is not possible to conclude with philosophical tools which of three frameworks is the most appropriate for assessing the ethical justifiability of a new biotechnological practice. According to Häyry, philosophical tools fail in doing so, as the three frameworks defined as above differ in the fundamental values and principles they employ. So Häyry seems to say that what is left for the philosopher in bioethics is to assess the internal coherence of each position, but then to step back and assume what he calls a non-confrontational “polite bystander view” which recognizes the existence of many divergent rationalities, all of which are simultaneously valid on the premise of internal coherence.
In my own contribution to the special issue (“Genetic Enhancement in Sports: The Role of Reason and Private Rationalities in the Public Arena“, coauthored with Paolo Maugeri of the European School of Molecular Medicine), we tested the approach outlined by Häyry by applying it to an eighth genetic challenge, namely, a variation of the genetic enhancement challenge discussed by Häyry as it applies to sports: gene doping. Should genetic enhancement in sports should be conceived as an eighth wonder or an eighth cardinal sin? And how useful is Häyry’s nonconfrontational approach for dealing with this kind of issues?
In our paper we argued that the genetic challenges described by Häyry’ are “public questions requiring public answers” and in this regard Häyry’s nonconfrontational approach is neither exhaustive nor satisfactory. To prove our point we chose to nail it down to the very timely eight “genetic challenge” of gene doping in professional track & field, which will be a very practical issue to deal with at the upcoming London 2012 Olympics games. Using the case of genetic enhancement in sports as our case study, we tested Häyry’s claim about the polite bystander view of the philosopher in the bioethical arena and argued that, on the contrary, philosophers are not, and definitely should not, remain out of assessing the rationality of the available alternative approaches. Quite on the contrary, philosophers should undertake the necessary confrontation required when a moral position underpins a practical decision, as the decisions concerning the permissibility of genetic enhancement in professional sports, or the permissibility of other biotechnological interventions, are. Even if moral disagreement will persist, this is not a good reason for philosophers to watch and stand by. Rather, it is a good reason for philosophers to enter into the arena of political philosophy and to come up with tools of deliberative democracy to deal with the moral disagreement. But we will leave this realm for the next post.

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