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

The lion and the wildebeest

Birds flock, fish school, bees swarm, but social being is more than simply sticking together.  Social groups enable specialisation and a sharing of abilities, and enhances ability, learning and creating new tricks. The more a group works together, the more effective they become as a team.  Chimpanzees learn from each other how to use stones to crack nuts, or sticks to get termites.  All around us we see cooperation and learning in nature.  Nature is inherently creative.  Pulling together becomes a rallying cry during a crisis.  We have heard it throughout the coronavirus pandemic.  "We are all in this together", a mantra that encourages people to adopt a common strategy. In an era of 'self-interest' and 'survival of the fittest,'  and 'selfish gene', we lose sight of the obvious conclusion from the evidence all around us.   Sticking together is more often the better approach.  This is valid for the lion as it is also for the wildebeest.   We don't

Noise pollution puts nature at risk

 "I just want a bit of peace and quiet!" Let's get away from all the hustle and bustle; the sound of endless traffic on the roads, of the trains on the railway, and the planes in the sky; the incessant drone; the noise. We live in a world of man-made noise; screeching, bellowing, on-and-on in an unmelodious cacophony.  This constant background noise has now become a significant health hazard.   With average background levels of 60 decibels, those who live in cities are often exposed to noise over 85 decibels, enough to cause significant hearing loss over time.  It causes stress, high blood pressure, headache and loss of sleep and poor health and well-being.   In nature, noise has content and significance.  From the roar of the lion, the laughing of a hyena,  communication is essential for life; as the warning of danger, for bonding as a group or a pair, finding a mate, or for establishing a position in a hierarchy - chattering works.  Staying in touch is vital to working

Therapeutic animal stress

Interacting with animals is known to be therapeutic,  particularly in reducing stress.  But do we consider sufficiently the effects this may have on the animals involved?   We might assume that because it is calming for us, then it must be so for the therapeutic animals, but is this so?  New research suggests that it isn't always without stress for the animals involved.  Positive human-animal interaction relates to changes in physiological variables both in humans and other animals, including a reduction of subjective psychological stress (fear, anxiety) and an increase of oxytocin levels in the brain.  It also reduces the 'stress' hormone, cortisol. Indeed, these biological responses have measurable clinical benefits.  Oxytocin has long been implicated in maternal bonding, sexual behaviour and social affiliation behaviours and in promoting a sense of well-being .  So far, so good.  We humans often turn to animals for stress relief, companionship, and even therapy.  We kno