About bioethics

There are many different ways of being a bioethicist. Mainly this is because there really is no single, unified discipline or discourse of bioethics. Some problems need to be addressed now (clinical ethics consultations), some problems may never be solved (philosophical ethics), some problems cry out for more facts (empirical bioethics), and some problems require cheerleaders (what do we call such bioethics?). 

James Gustafson (a theologian who sometimes wrote on bioethics) thought there were four types of moral discourse, and his typology has been applied to bioethics discourse: prophetic or activist discourse in which the what is right is not really in dispute and whose goal is to move people and society in the direction of justice; policy discourse which accepts and works within the current limitations because decisions need to be made now, not in some idealized future; philosophical discourse which has the luxury of idealizing the conditions of discourse, in exchange for, one hopes, clarity and rigor about a conceptual point; and narrative or communitarian discourse which, like activist discourse, is not primarily a tool for discovering moral truths but instead a means of creating and perpetuating a community which shares those moral truths. 

Each type of discourse is necessary and understanding the primary purpose of a bioethics discourse can be helpful. But each type of discourse can also be limited and have pitfalls. Premature activist discourse may lead to policy disasters; policy discourse could lack courage and imagination, and become a tool of institutional power; philosophical discourse can leave reality behind in its fanciful idealizations; and narrative bioethics may have little to do in a bioethics culture whose focus is only autonomy and individual welfare.

Still, let a thousand flowers bloom. Most of my work has focused on policy discourse with some forays into the philosophical. I use a variety of methods, including conceptual analysis, qualitative methods, traditional and experimental surveys (see recent example), democratic deliberation, and various quantitative methods.