Fourth issue of our newsletter about biobanks

December 22, 2015

Now you can read the fourth newsletter this year from CRB and about ethical and legal issues in biobanking:

The newsletter contains three news items:

  1. Moa Kindström Dahlin describes the work on ethical and legal issues in the European platform for biobanking, BBMRI-ERIC, and reflects on what law is.
  2. Josepine Fernow features two PhD projects on research participants’ and patients’ preferences and perceptions of risk information.
  3. Anna-Sara Lind discusses the ruling of the European Court of Justice against the Safe Harbour agreement with the United States.

(Link to PDF version of the newsletter)

And finally, a link to the December issue of the newsletter from

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Ethics in the midst of life

November 25, 2015

Pär Segerdahl“You don’t treat another human like that!” Thus we may speak, with a trembling voice that simultaneously reveals our confidence. Perhaps to a person who harasses someone else. You just don’t treat people like that!

But what gives us the right to object? From where does our confidence come? Must it not be from the concept of the human? Perhaps we should bracket our passionate voice and instead soberly examine the concept “human being”: so that we may purely intellectually understand why it is wrong to harass people. Perhaps our conceptual investigation reveals some sort of inviolable dignity in human essence. The rest follows from the pure laws of thought.

I believe Socrates did something similar. He shook Athenians’ confidence in life through conceptual investigations that he indicated would lead them to the ultimate source of true confidence; to knowledge of the pure ideas of what is good and right. The Athenians’ mistake was that of simply being confident in life; as humans are confident. That confidence in life made them blind to the purer and more fundamental knowledge that can be reached by turning the gaze toward the concepts themselves.

These tendencies to purify what is intellectually binding in morality make me think of inventors of perpetual motion machines. They dream of machines that, through their ingenuity, can do what no ordinary machine can do. They just move and move, all by themselves, without any connections with the energy flows of nature and life. For they are so cleverly made immune to friction and objections.

The problem is that the purity of these unobjectionable constructions is achieved at the cost of no longer speaking to people; only to other dreamy seekers of perpetual motion machines.

The trembling voice characterizes ethics. Our confidence in life has no ingenious source in reason itself, which we should seek instead of being confident. This does not prevent us from reflecting on our ethical responses and develop our way of living and thinking, allowing our trembling voice to deepen as we seek our way through life.

Ethics is in the midst of life. A moral perpetual motion machine outside of any such living context cannot be constructed. There are limits to how reasonable one can be.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics :

Culturally sensitive ethics

November 3, 2015

Pär SegerdahlHealth care receives patients from many different cultures and health care professionals are encouraged to be sensitive to patients’ cultural background. But what is a culture? What is it one should be sensitive to?

Last week, CRB organized a workshop on Islamic perspectives on reproductive ethics. A case that was discussed was this: an unmarried Muslim couple (21 years old) seeks advice on contraception. Should health care workers provide counseling, when premarital sex is forbidden in Islam?

The case brought the question of cultural sensitivity into immediate focus for me. To what should one be sensitive: to doctrines, or to human lives? What “is” a culture: the formulated ideas or the way people live (with their ideas)?

The Muslim couple actually sought counseling. Being culturally sensitive can also mean being sensitive to this fact: that this is how people can live (with their ideas).

It is tempting to objectify cultures in terms of doctrines, especially when they are foreign to us. We don’t know the people and their daily lives, so we try to understand them through the texts – as if we read their “source code.” But the texts are living parts of the culture. They have uses, and these practices cannot be inferred from the texts.

Aje Carlbom (social anthropologist at Malmö University) stressed that this temptation to objectify other cultures can arise even in a culture; for example, when people who belong to it move to parts of the world where people live differently. Suddenly they don’t fully understand their own culture, for it lacks its real-life support, its everyday context, and therefore one turns to the texts. One’s own culture is objectified.

I wonder: Are not these tendencies extremely common; are they not in all of us? Are they not in ethics? Isn’t there a will to objectify ethics, to formulate the “ethical source code” that should govern, for example, our biomedical practices?

I think we need culturally sensitive ethics: in the sense of an ethics that responds sensitively to what is actually happening, and that contributes to meaningful contexts. An ethics that does not objectify either cultures or Ethics (capitalized).

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics :

Idling normativity

August 17, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI recently wrote about the tendency of ethical practices to lose their vital functions and degenerate into empty rituals. Why is there such a tendency?

The tendency is not unique to ethics: it is everywhere.

Suddenly, patients and students are to be called “customers” and be treated “as” customers. This can be perceived as an imposed language, as empty rituals that demean all concerned.

Since the edict to treat a variety of relationships “as” customer relationships can be experienced as demeaning, expanding customer normativity has become a problem even where it has its rightful place: in our stores, where we really are customers.

A retail chain – I will not say which – is now instructing their employees to call their customers “guests” and to treat them “as” guests!

The retail chain “solves” the problem of expanding customer normativity by decreeing guest normativity at precisely the place where customer normativity should work authentically.

I don’t know why we so easily go astray in our own forms of normativity, but I have a name for the phenomenon: idling normativity.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

All you need is law? The ethics of legal scholarship

June 9, 2015

Moa Kindström DahlinWorking as a lawyer in a multidisciplinary centre for research ethics and bioethics, as I do, often brings up to date questions regarding the relationship between law and ethics. What kind of ethical competence does academic lawyers need, and what kind of ethical challenges do we face? I will try to address some aspects of these challenges.

First, I must confess. I am a believer, a believer of law.

That does not mean that I automatically like all regulations, it is just that I cannot see a better way to run the world, but through a common system of legal norms. Believing in law means that I accept living in a different universe. I know the non-lawyers cannot always see my universe, but I see it clearly, and I believe in it. You’ll have to trust me – and all other lawyers – through training and education, we see this parallel universe and believe in it.

I do not always like what I see, but I do accept that it exists.

I think that understanding a lawyer’s understanding of what law is, is a necessary precondition for going deeper into the understanding of what I here refer to as the ethics of legal scholarship. So, what is law? This question has a thousand answers, stemming from different philosophical theories, but I choose to put it like this:

Law is an idea as well as a practical reality and a practice.

As a reality, law is the sum of all regulation, locally (e.g. Sweden), regionally (e.g. Europe) and internationally. For example, the statutes, the preparatory works, court decisions, the academic legal literature, the general legal principles and other legal sources where we find the answers to questions such as “Is it legal to do this or that?” or “Might I be responsible for this specific act in some way?”

The practice of law has to do with the application of general legal knowledge (whatever that means) to a specific case, and this application always involves interpretation. This means that law is contextual. The result of its application differs depending on situation, time and place.

Law as an idea is the illusion that there are legal answers out there somewhere, ready to be discovered, described and applied. Lawyers live in a universe where this illusion is accepted, although every lawyer knows that this is oversimplified. There is rarely an obvious answer to a posed question, and there are often several different interpretations that can be made.

The legal universe is a universe of planets and orbits: different legal sources and jurisdictions, different legal traditions and ideas on how to interpret legal sources. There are numerous legal theories, perspectives and ideologies: legal positivism, critical legal studies, law and economics and therapeutic jurisprudence to name a few. The way we, the lawyers, choose to look at the law – the lens of our telescope if you like – affects how we perceive and decipher what we see.

Law is sometimes described as codified ethics. The legal system of a state often provides structures and systems for new technologies and medical progress. Therefore, law plays an important role when analyzing a state’s political system or the organization of its welfare system.

Law, in short, is a significant piece of a puzzle in the world as we know it.

This means that the idea of law as something concrete, something we can discover and describe, creates our perception of reality. Yet, we must be aware of the fact that the law itself is intangible, and answers to legal questions might differ, depending on whom (which lawyer) is making the analysis and which lens is being used.

Sometimes the answer is clear and precise, but many times the answer is vague and blurry. When the law seems unclear, it is up to us, the lawyers, to heal it.

We cannot accept “legal gaps”.

The very idea that law is a system that provides all the answers means that we must try to find all the answers within the system. If we cannot find them, we have to create them. Therefore, proposing and creating legal answers is one of the tasks for legal scholars. With this task comes great power. If a lawyer states that something is a description of what law is, such a description may be used as an argument for a political development in that direction.

Therefore the descriptions of what law is and what is legal within a field – especially if the regulation in the field is new or under revision – must always be nuanced and clearly motivated. If the statement as to what law is emanates from certain starting points, this should be clarified in order to make the reasoning transparent.

This is what I would like to call the ethics of legal scholarship.

It is worth repeating: Research within legal scholarship always requires thoughtfulness. We, the scholars, have to be careful and ethically aware all the time. Our answers and statements as to legal answers are always normative, never just descriptive. Every time an academic lawyer answers a question, the answer or statement might itself become a legal source and be referred to as a part of the law.

Law is constantly reconstructing itself and is, to some extent, self-sufficient. But if law is law, does that mean that all you need is law?

Moa Kindström Dahlin

Thinking about law - the Ethics Blog


The Ethics Blog is now available as a book!

December 17, 2014

Pär SegerdahlDuring the autumn, Josepine Fernow and I selected texts from the Ethics Blog and compiled them into a book. Last week we had the book release!

When blog posts end up on paper, in a book, they can be read like aphorisms: slower than when surfing the net.

I hope that also the PDF version of the book will support slow reading.

We also compiled a Swedish book – here are links to both books:

Welcome to download and read – Merry Christmas!

Pär Segerdahl

(Note: If you read the PDF books via the web browser, fonts and formatting are sometimes affected. If this happens, please download the files on the hard drive.)

We think about bioethics :

What are absolute borders made of?

December 17, 2013

I return to the question in my previous post. I was wondering why biotechnological developments repeatedly invite moral responses in terms of borders that shouldn’t be transgressed by humans. (Think of stem cell research using human embryos.)

What is fundamental in these responses? Is it the absolute border? Do people already have stable notions of borders that shouldn’t be transgressed by humans, as part of semi-metaphysical views of life? Do they respond, “Controversial!”, because they deem some new practice to be transgressing a border that already is in place within their view of life?

Or is the notion of the border itself part of the reaction? Is “the absolute border” reactive rather than the source of the reaction?

I’m inclined to say that the “absolute border” arises with and through the reaction. Let’s call it the intellectual part of the reaction. It is how the reaction presents itself as legitimate; it is how the reaction transforms itself into a reason against the new developments.

The notion of an “absolute border” is how the reaction translates itself into the “space of reasons.”

If so, the recurrent reaction is almost bound to misunderstand itself in accordance with my first suggestion: the border will be perceived as basic, and the reaction will present itself as rational verdict: “The absolute border is being transgressed here; therefore, a moral response is in order!”

We must not forget that entire views of life can be reactive. Even when they are beautiful and admirable human achievements, their function can be that of digesting reactions and providing them with meaning.

My conclusion is that if we want to understand these recurrent reactions, we must not be fooled by how they spontaneously translate themselves into “the space of reasons.” We need a practice of back-translation.

We seem bound to repeatedly misunderstand ourselves. Our much praised faculty of understanding easily becomes a faculty of misunderstanding.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

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