Bioethics is not a community of interests

There is a persistent image of bioethics as being in symbiosis with the powerful interests of medical research and the pharmaceutical industry.

Examples that could confirm such suspicions multiply, unfortunately, since pharmaceutical companies have begun to hire bioethicists as consultants. After critique, Glenn McGee, the former editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, recently resigned from a Texas based stem-cell company.

There obviously is a real risk that bioethicists end up representing powerful interests. Everyone who claims to be a bioethicist should be attentive to this question:

  • “Has my thinking become unjust and partial?”

In their academic setting, however, bioethicists not only can but should be driven by this question of truthfulness. You not only can but should weigh a multitude of values and perspectives against each other. You not only can change your mind, but should always consider the need to do so.

Openness strengthens you as a bioethicist.

This would not be the case if you represented a company, an organization, or an authority. In such positions, it is predetermined which views, which interests and which regulations you have a professional duty to look after. If you don’t disseminate the right views or look after the right interests, you are disloyal to your organization and should consider quitting.

It is the other way round with bioethics as an academic activity. If you protect privileged views as if you belonged to a community of interests, if you reason one-dimensionally without allowing opposed perspectives to be seen – then you should consider quitting.

If the functionary of an organization asks, with a pounding heart, “Have I become disloyal?”, the ethicist’s worrying question is, “Have I become loyal?”

If bioethics is vulnerable to accusations of partiality, then, it is because ethical thinking presupposes an openness that typically is absent within communities of interest (and they abound).

This ethical openness, paradoxically, may lay behind some of the accusations that bioethics legitimizes power. For ethical openness hardly is politically radical or ideologically rigid.

Where political organizations protect certain interests and work towards particular goals, ethical thinking has a responsibility to highlight other values that might be undermined if the organization got all the power it hopes to attain.

There seems to be certain tension between ethical openness and political radicalness. Ethics might seem to maintain status quo… from the point of view of various forms of political activism. Ethics might seem to protect power… from the point of view of communities of interest that strive to achieve commendable but limited goals.

There are so many good causes. There are so many groups with commendable interests. Dare I add that even industry and research have values that can deserve our attention?

My own belief is that the open-mindedness with which the best forms of bioethics can be associated – the difficult art of doing justice to many possibilities where there is a temptation to defend a rigid position – can have a profound democratic function.

Voices that strive to be impartial are important.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

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