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

A time for every purpose

All life moves. Or, more precisely, all life moves purposefully.  This is true even for trees and plants.  Movement is essential for maintaining life.  Animals migrate; plants disperse.  Some form of migration is an ingredient of all life.  For many organisms, it is a key function of reproduction.  We don't reproduce merely to create a new organism, but also to disperse the population - finding new fertile ground, or resources. Reproduction is a form of migration. Reproduction isn't merely to replicate. Reproduction produces change and diversity.  While we may have strong resemblences in families, we also have differences.  Creating a difference is how evolution works.  In this sense, nature is a continuous exploratory process, finding what works best.  Nature senses change and responds.  Some of this is immediate and physiological or behavioural; some of it is over generations.  If we look at a forest over long periods of time, we would see that it shifts. There is a movement

A weaver's tail - the harvest mouse

Living in the grass is a tiny mouse: the tiny harvest mouse, with a wonderful scientific name that sounds like the title of a Charles Dickens Novel,  Micromys minutus.   It is the only British mammal with a prehensile tail. It uses its tail to hold on to the slender grass stems, at the tops of which it builds a nest. Photo: Nick Fewing These tiny mammals (just around 5 cm long) build a spherical nest of tightly woven grass at the top of tall grasses, in which the female will give birth to about six young.  In the fields, we see cows and horses brushing away flies with their tails; often they will stand side-by-side and end-to-end, and help each other.  Two tails are better than one!  In nature, tails are put to good use.  Just as a tight-rope walker uses his pole for balance, so for some species, a tail provides balance. When running, a squirrel uses its tail as a counterbalance to help the squirrel steer and turn quickly, and the tail is used aerodynamically in flight.  But many anima