‘Can bioethics be an honest way of making a living?’ Our response to Sarah Franklin’s Nature piece.

In this paper, co-authored with Dr Giulia Cavaliere and published on March 27th 2020 in the Journal of Medical Ethics, we respond to Sarah Franklin’s 2019 commentary in Nature ‘ ‘Ethical research – the long and bumpy road from shirked to shared‘.

Whether bioethics can be an honest way of making a living is a question posed that Samuel Gorovitz posed more than thirty years ago, in 1986. In his paper “Baiting bioethics”, Gorovitz responded to ten critiques moved to the at that time infant field of bioethics. Many of those critiques that are still vividly discussed today, including for instance that bioethics has no legitimate methodology; no foundations; no practical or conceptual utility; no place in universities or in public policy.

In a sense, the challenges to bioethics raised by Franklin can be read as contemporary iterations of that debate.

In the paper with Cavaliere we argue that ethicists have an epistemic advantage in addressing normative questions concerning science and technology, and their particular skills and knowledge enable them to make significant contributions to decision-making and policy development in these areas. It is in this sense that ethical expertise cannot be improvised (that “We cannot all be ethicists”): it requires training.

Although, as Gorovitz argues, our capacity to resolve moral problems remains imperfect, “there remains a difference between thinking about them well and thinking about them badly”. This is an important distinction and, we believe, one that needs to be guiding the work of philosophers, social scientists and other scholars working in the field of bioethics.

The paper can be accessed here:

https://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2020/03/27/medethics-2019-105954

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