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


Popular posts from this blog

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba

Mr Duncan-Smith offers a disingenuous and divisive comparison

Some time ago, actually it was a long time ago when I was in my early teens, someone close to me bought a table. It was an early flat pack variety. It came with a top and four legs. He followed the instructions to the letter screwing the legs into the top. But when he had completed it the table wobbled. One leg he explained was shorter than the other three; so he sawed a bit from each of the other legs. The table wobbled. One leg, he explained, was longer than the other three. So, he sawed a bit off. The table wobbled. He went on cutting the legs, but the table continued to wobble. Cut, cut, cut! By this time he had convinced himself there was no alternative to it.  He ended up with a very low table indeed, supported by four very stumpy legs and a bit of cardboard placed under one of them to stop it wobbling on the uneven floor.  Mr Duncan-Smith argues that we need a 1% cap on benefits to be 'fair to average earners'. Average  earners have seen their incomes rise by less tha

His way or none? Why I can't vote for Jeremy

There is an assumption that all would be well with the Labour Party if people hadn't expressed their genuine concern with what they consider the inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. If only, it is said, the Parliamentary Labour Party and his Shadow Cabinet had supported him, instead of undermining him, all would have been fine. If they had been quiet and towed the line, then the party would not have been in the mess it is in. So, should they have stayed silent, or speak of their concerns? There comes a point when the cost of staying silent outweighs the cost of speaking out. This is a judgment. Many call it a coup by the PLP. They paint a picture of a right-wing PLP out of touch with the membership.  This is the narrative of the Corbyn camp. But Jeremy Corbyn, over the decades he has been in politics, showed the way.  It was Jeremy Corbyn who opposed almost all Labour leaders and rarely held back from speaking out, or voting time and again against the party line. As