A large tranche of contemporary bioethical inquiry is self-consciously focused on purpose and methodology. Bioethics is a field of disparate disciplines, and it is not always clear what role the philosopher plays in the wider scheme. Even when philosophical reflections can, in principle, find application in the real world (and often, in bioethics, there is too heady a degree of abstraction for this), there can be difficulty in finding sound resolution between the competing perspectives. Where fundamentals differ, we face apparent deadlock, with theorists seemingly able only to talk across each other. Perspectives on this vary. For example, some will argue that the philosopher’s role is purely reflective and need have no practical resonance whatsoever. Others may say that philosophers are not equipped to engage with empirical questions or, when they do, they do so on flawed understandings of “the real world”; bad science or science fiction replaces brute fact and emotional, social, and empirical reality. Some may seek to strike a balance by trying to engage the questions within a political framing, allowing both for normative and real-world concerns.
(Online publication March 25 2011)
John Coggon, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation, School of Law at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. At the time of writing he was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, working in issues relating to public health law and ethics.