Skip to main content

A philosopher’s role in biomedical ethics.

Can there be objective and correct answers to bioethical problems? This was the central question put to the philosopher Peter Singer when interviewed by Denis Noble for Voices from Oxford.

As a utilitarian philosopher Professor Singer is preeminent in his contribution to developing a practical and systematic approach to medical ethics. In the early days of medical ethics eminent doctors would make somewhat naive judgements but without much depth or clarity of thought. There was little philosophical rigour. Medicine was paternalistic in its approach with the assumption that doctors would ‘know best what was in the patient’s interest’.

When new developments in medicine such as assisted conception through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) presented new challenges, the media would most likely turn to theologians for a moral perspective. But, as Peter Singer puts it, ‘we are not a confessional society’ and it is important that there is a ‘non religious voice’ in ethical discourse. Medicine has now moved to a much more patient focussed approach with the notion that the best person to make judgements about their interests is the patient themselves, particularly about priorities and in relation to quality of life. A key issue then is how best they can be informed to make such decisions.

There is nothing in the expertise of a clinician or scientist that enables them to pronounce on ethical issues. As Peter Singer puts it “you can’t draw normative conclusions from the facts”. The facts don’t tell us what we ‘ought to do’. Yet modern medicine presents a unique ‘technological imperative’; machines can keep people alive, but a key issue is whether we should always keep people alive longer if their quality of life has fallen below a certain point. The key questions then are when and how, and by whom should such decisions be made. There is little in the science itself that can present an answer. But are there any ‘correct’ answers to such questions?

Peter Singer believes there are. “I do believe there is a correct answer, although to demonstrate that is a major effort in philosophy”. It also demonstrates the role of the philosopher in practical medical ethical discourse.

In ethics there is some degree of expertise in terms of what philosophers have which is familiarity with the concepts and how they work. But the role of the lay person is much more significant and has to be brought into the discussion. We have to work with the views that they have.

Science has a responsibility not to oversell itself. There is a funding imperative that often leads to scientists to make claims for significant potential breakthroughs. As Peter Singer puts it “scientists are often very narrow in presenting the significance of their findings.” In relation to the human genome project “the way things work in the body appears to be more complex.” There are many instances when a little more humility might have been better.

See the video of interview with Peter Singer

Ray Noble is News Editor for Voices from Oxford

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Palm Oil production killing the planet

Bad trade and bad products are killing our planet. We have said this before on The Thin End. There is no better example than that of palm oil. It is used ubiquitously in so many products, and its production is a major factor destroying rainforests and threatening precious species.

Demand for palm oil is 'skyrocketing worldwide'. It is used in packaging and in so much of our snack foods, cookies, crackers, chocolate products, instant noodles, cereals, and doughnuts, and the list goes on.
Bad for the planet So, why is this so bad for the planet?

The oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palms native to Africa. It is now grown primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia, but is also expanding across Central and West Africa and Latin America.

Palm oil production is now one of the world's leading causes of rainforest destruction, and this is impacting adversely some of the world's most culturally and biologically diverse ecosystems. Irreplaceable wildlife species like t…

Time to ban organophosphate pesticides?

How would you react if your neighbour told you he was going to spray his garden with a neurotoxin used in WW2? "Oh don't worry!" he assures you, "it's only a low dose!"
"A neurotoxin?" you ask incredulously "Are you crazy?"
"It's very effective!" he asserts.
"How does it work?" you ask.
"It stops the pests' brains working" he asserts with a smile.  "Everyone uses it."
"But..."

Campaigners in the USA hope that with Scott Pruitt’s resignation, and with a new administrator Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this presents another chance to apply pressure and achieve a national ban in the United States on the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos once and for all.



Organophosphate insecticides, such as diazinon, chlorpyrifos, disulfoton, azinphos-methyl, and fonofos, have been used widely in agriculture and in household applications as pesticides si…

Hummingbird exposure to pesticides

Many have responded to the campaigns to stop the use of pesticides killing bees.  Bees are not the only animals affected.

Hummingbirds are noted as a species of conservation concern by Partners in Flight, and their populations are estimated to have declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014.



New research reveals that hummingbirds and bumble bees are being exposed to neonicotinoid and other pesticides through routes that are widespread and complex. The findings are published in Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry.

To measure exposure to pesticides in these avian pollinators, investigators made novel use of cloacal fluid and fecal pellets from hummingbirds living near blueberry fields in British Columbia. They also collected bumble bees native to Canada, and their pollen, and blueberry leaves and flowers from within conventionally sprayed and organic blueberry farms.

The researchers detected pesticides and related compounds in cloacal fluid and fecal pellets of hummingbirds revealing…