Why are bioethicists conducting empirical studies?

Pär SegerdahlBioethicists often make empirical studies of how the public, or relevant groups, perceive organ donation, euthanasia, or research participation; or how they perceive research that can be considered controversial, like embryonic stem cell research.

An objection to empirical bioethics sometimes made is that empirical evidence cannot settle ethical issues. Suppose a survey shows strong support for euthanasia among the public. Does that make euthanasia right?

No, it would be a joke to reason as if a survey gave evidence that euthanasia probably is right (but more studies are needed before we can be sure). Ethical issues are determined neither by vote nor by questionnaires or focus-group interviews.

So why are such studies conducted? How can empirical data serve as a basis for ethical reasoning? Have bioethicists begun to make the mistake of drawing conclusions from what is the case to what should be the case?

These questions appear fundamental. Are empirical methods legitimately used in ethics?

I think that examples of good uses can be given. A questionnaire or interview study with medical staff can exhibit ethical problems in health care practices that otherwise would have been unnoticed (like Mona Pettersson’s study of nurses’ experiences of do not to resuscitate orders). Empirical studies can also show how more values are ​​at stake than those traditionally taken into account in bioethics. Many examples could be given, but let me instead use an analogy:

Suppose someone asks you for advice on a delicate matter. Will you not ask questions to that person, to better understand the context; what is at stake; what the actual problem is? Simplified, one could say that this is what empirical bioethics does. It is not about obtaining empirical evidence of what is right and wrong. It is about getting a better grasp of the problem: what is at stake, what it is about.

The words “empirical,” “facts” and “evidence” are often used rhetorically in debates: to support views and positions. Probably it is such intellectual debate rhetoric one thinks of when empirical bioethics is questioned. Bioethicists are seen as shrewd debaters who try to conjure forth empirical support for ideas of right and wrong. But empirical work is not primarily about answering questions, but about asking questions (as in the analogy).

Empirical bioethics deepens the question, rather than seeks artful shortcuts to the answer. The deepening of the question gives friction to move forward through the real problem. We must not be fooled by the intellectual rhetoric of empirical justification when bioethicists make empirical studies to reason more sensitively about the actual problem.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

ethics needs empirical input - the ethics blog

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