Dangers of moral words

December 11, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe philosopher Bernard Williams distinguished between thick ethical concepts such as “brave” and “brutal,” which have both descriptive and evaluative content, and thin ethical concepts such as “right” and “wrong,” which are purely evaluative. “Murder” and “exploitation” are thick ethical concepts that sometimes play a central role in ethical debate. They have descriptive content combined with a negative evaluation: murder and exploitation are wrong.

This duality of thick moral words, their descriptive/normative Janus face, makes them an impelling part of the vocabulary of most, if not all, ideological movements. If you oppose X, and can demonstrate that X, in fact, involves murder or exploitation (descriptive aspect), then you have immediately demonstrated that X must be opposed (normative aspect). Thick ethical concepts are often used in conflictual situations to legitimize violent actions against people who are described as intriguing, murderous, exploitive, and much else. Since the words are taken to describe reality as it is, such bad individuals must be watched over and, if necessary, acted against.

Thick moral words thus easily lend themselves to functioning as ideological firearms. Their descriptive aspect allows taking aim. Their evaluative aspect says, “Fire!” I want to mention three further dangers of thick ethical concepts.

Dogmatism. The first is that it is difficult to raise questions about their applicability, since it can appear as if you questioned the evaluative component. Let us say that you raise the question if embryo destruction really constitutes murder. In the eyes of those who take this description for reality, you appear like a treacherous person who shrewdly argues that murder might be right! Simply raising the question, no matter how open-mindedly you do it, places you in the firing line. Your very open-mindedness speaks against you: “Murder is not something to be open-minded about!”

Righteousness. A second troublesome feature is that thick ethical concepts produce instant goodness in any ideological movement. Any ideology is on the right side, regardless of which side it is on, since it fights for what its moral vocabulary unites with the good, and fights against what its vocabulary unites with the bad. Any ideology has the right and the duty to act resolutely against what its dualistic vocabulary picks out as impermissible features of reality. – Which side for peace are you on?

Suffering. A third problem is that thick moral words produce suffering in the form of gnawing suspicions and fears. Since we are not omniscient, there is much we do not know, for example, about embryonic stem cell research. Thick ethical concepts here tend to appear in our heads as stand-ins for reality. They appear in the form of an inner voice that tells us what stem cell research is. This is not a purely descriptive “is,” but a double-edged one, for what the voice in the head says the research is can be a nightmarish, “It is murder.” Since we are ignorant of much, but not of our anxiety, we cannot shake off the worrying double-edged concepts that spin in the head. They seem validated by the gnawing anxiety they produce, and we suffer without end, caught in a whirlpool of thick descriptive/normative moral language.

In pointing out dangers of thick moral words, I am not questioning their descriptive or evaluative content. Murder is a reality and it is a serious crime; the same is true of exploitation. I am just pointing out that the dual nature of thick moral words can turn our heads. Moral language can make us violent, dogmatic, righteous, and anxious about issues that perhaps exist mainly in our descriptions of reality.

I think most of us have fallen into such dark pits.

Pär Segerdahl

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Bioethics dissolving misdirected worldliness

May 16, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWhen we feel low, we often make the mistake of scanning the external environment to find the cause of our state of mind out there. One could speak of the depressed person’s misdirected worldliness. We are convinced that something in the world makes us depressed. We exclude that we ourselves play a role in the drama: “I am depressed because he/she/they/society is so damned…”

The depressed person naturally believes that the way to happiness lies in eliminating the external cause of the depression: “If I just could be spared from dealing with him/her/them/society, I would feel a lot better.” That is what the depressed person’s worldliness looks like. We are unable to turn around and see (and treat) the emergence of the problem within ourselves.

Xenophobia might be a manifestation of the depressed person’s misunderstanding of life. We could speak of the insecure person’s misdirected worldliness. One scans the external environment to find the cause of one’s insecurity in the world. When one “finds” it, one apparently “proves” it beyond doubt. The moment one thinks about immigration, one is attacked by strong feelings of insecurity: no doubt, that’s the cause! The alternative possibility that one carries the insecurity within oneself is excluded: “I’m suffering because society is becoming increasingly insecure.”

Finally, one makes politics of the difficulty of scrutinizing oneself. One wants to eliminate the external cause of the insecurity one feels: “If we stop immigration, society will become safer and I will feel more secure!” That is what the insecure person’s misdirected worldliness looks like.

You might be surprised that even anti-xenophobia can exhibit the depressed person’s misunderstanding of life. If we lack a deep understanding of how xenophobia can arise within a human being, we will believe that there are evil people who in their stupidity spread fake statistics about increasing social insecurity. These groups must be eliminated, we think: “If there were no xenophobic groups in society, then I would feel much better.” That is what the good activist’s worldliness can look like.

Like that we go on and on, in our misdirected worldliness, because we fail to see our own role in the drama. We make politics of our inner states, which flood the world as if they were facts that should appear in the statistics. (Therefore, we see them in the statistics.)

Now you may be surprised again, because even bioethics can exhibit the depressed person’s misunderstanding of life. I am thinking of the tendency to make ethics an institution that maintains moral order in society. Certainly, biomedical research needs regulation, but sometimes regulation runs the errands of a misdirected worldliness.

A person who feels moral unease towards certain forms of research may think, “If researchers did not kill human embryos, I would feel a lot better.” Should we make policy of this internal state by banning embryonic stem cell research? Or would that be misdirected projection of an inner state on the world?

I cannot answer the question in this post; it requires more attention. All I dare to say is that we, more often than we think, are like depressed people who seek the cause of our inner states in the world. Just being able to ask if we manifest the depressed person’s misunderstanding of life is radical enough.

I imagine a bioethics that can ask the self-searching question and seek practical ways to handle it within ourselves. So that our inner states do not flood the world.

Pär Segerdahl

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Big questions do not have small answers

December 20, 2017

Pär SegerdahlSome questions we perceive are “bigger” than other questions. What does it mean to live, to be, rather than not to be? When does life begin and when does it end? What is a human being? Does life have a meaning or do we endow it with mere façades of meaning?

We do not expect definitive answers to these questions, except for a joke. They are wonderings that accompany us and occasionally confront us. We may then notice that we have an attitude to them. Perhaps a different attitude today than ten years ago. The attitude is not a definitive answer, not a doctrine about reality that dry investigations could support or falsify.

Bioethics sometimes comes close to these big questions, namely, when scientists study what we can associate with the mystery of living, being, existing. An example is embryonic stem cell research, where scientists harvest stem cells from human embryos. Even proponents of such research may experience that there is something sensitive about the embryo. I would not exist, we would not live, you would not be, unless once upon a time there was an embryo…

The embryo is thus easily associated with the big questions of life. This implies that bioethics has to handle them. How does it approach them?

Usually by seeking specific answers to the questions. Like super-smart lawyers who finally get the hang of these age-old, obscure issues and straighten them out for us.

Do you know, for example, when a human being begins to exist? Two bioethicists combined biological facts with philosophical analysis to provide a definitive answer: A human being begins to exist sixteen days after fertilization.

Incorrect, other bioethicists objected. They too combined biological facts with philosophical analysis, but provided another definitive answer: A human being begins to exist already with fertilization. The only exception is twins. They begin to exist later, but much earlier than sixteen days after fertilization.

The bioethicists I am talking about are proud of their intellectual capacity to provide specific answers to such a big question about human existence. However, if big questions do not have small answers, except for a joke, do they not deliver the answer at the cost of losing the question?

The question I am currently working on is how bioethics can avoid losing the questions we perceive are “bigger” than other questions.

Pär Segerdahl

Smith, B. & Brogaard, B. 2003. Sixteen days. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 28: 45-78.

Damschen, G., Gómez-Lobo, A. & Schönecker, D. 2006. Sixteen days? A reply to B. Smith and B. Brogaard on the beginning of human individuals. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31: 165-175.

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Taking people’s moral concerns seriously

September 19, 2017

Pär SegerdahlI recently published a post on how anxiety can take possession of the intellect: how anxiety, when it is interpreted by thoughts that rationalize it, can cause moral panic.

A common way of dealing with people’s moral concerns in bioethics is to take the concerns intellectually seriously. One tries to find logical reasons for or against the “correctness” of the anxiety. Is the embryo already a person? If it is, then it is correct to be morally concerned about embryonic stem cell research. Persons are then killed by researchers, who are almost murderers. However, if the embryo is not a person, but just an accumulation of cells, then there is at least one reason less to worry.

Bioethicists therefore set out to conclude the metaphysical issue about “the status of the embryo.” So that we will know whether it is intellectually correct to worry or not! One reason for this intellectualized approach is probably society’s need for foundations for decision-making. Should embryo research be allowed and, if so, in what forms? Decision-makers need to be able to motivate their decisions by citing intellectually appropriate reasons.

Bioethicists thus interpret people’s moral concerns as if they were motivated by intuitive folk-metaphysical thinking. This thinking may not always be perfectly logical or scientifically informed, but it should be possible to straighten out. That would satisfy society’s need for intellectually well-founded decisions that “take people’s concerns seriously.”

The problem with this way of taking people’s concerns seriously is that their worries are intellectualized. Do we worry on the basis of logic? Are children afraid of ghosts because they cherish a metaphysical principle that assigns a dangerous status to ghosts? Can their fear be dealt with by demonstrating that their metaphysical principle is untenable? Or by pointing out to them that there is no evidence of the existence of beings with the horrible characteristics their principle assigns to “ghosts”?

Why are many people hesitant about research with human embryos? I have no definitive answer, but doubt that it is due to some folk-metaphysical doctrines about the status of the embryo. Perhaps it is more related to the fact that the embryo is associated with so much that is significant to us. It is associated with pregnancy, birth, children, family life, life and death. The connection to these intimate aspects of life means that we, without necessarily having the view that embryo research is wrong, can feel hesitant.

The question is: How do we take such moral hesitation seriously? How do we reject delusions and calm ourselves down when the intellect starts to present us with horrible scenarios that certainly would motivate anxiety? How do we do it without smoothing things over or acting like faultfinders?

I believe that bioethics should above all avoid intellectualizing people’s moral concerns; stop representing moral hesitation as the outcome of metaphysical reasoning. If people do not worry because of folk-metaphysical doctrines about the embryo, then we have no reason to debate the status of the embryo. Instead, we should begin by asking ourselves: Where does our hesitation come from?

That would mean taking ourselves seriously.

Pär Segerdahl

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Moral panic in the intellect

September 6, 2017

Pär SegerdahlMoral panic develops intellectually. It is our thoughts that are racing. Certain mental images make such a deep impression on us that we take them for Reality, for Truth, for Facts. Do not believe that the intellect is cold and objective. It can boil over with agitated thoughts.

This is evident in bioethics, where many issues are filled with anguish. Research information about cloned animals, about new techniques for editing in the genome, or about embryonic stem cell research, evoke scary images of subversive forms of research, threatening human morality. The panic requires a sensitive intellect. There, the images of the research acquire such dimensions that they no longer fit into ordinary life. The images take over the intellect as the metaphysical horizon of Truth. Commonplace remarks that could calm down the agitated intellect appear to the intellect as naive.

A science news in National Geographic occasions these musings. It is about the first attempt in the United States to edit human embryos genetically. Using so-called CRISPR-Cas9 technique, the researchers removed a mutation associated with a common inherited heart disease. After the successful editing, the embryos were destroyed. (You find the scientific article reporting the research in Nature.)

Reading such research information, you might feel anxiety; anxiety that soon takes possession of your intellect: What will they do next? Develop “better” humans who look down on us as a lower species? Can we permit science to change human nature? NO, we must immediately introduce new legislation that bans all genetic editing of human embryos!

If the intellect can boil over with such agitated thoughts, and if moral panic legislation is imprudent, then I believe that bioethics needs to develop its therapeutic skills. Some bioethical issues need to be treated as affections of the intellect. Bioethical anxiety often arises, I believe, when research communication presents science as the metaphysical horizon of truth, instead of giving science an ordinary human horizon.

It may seem as if I took a stand for science by representing critics as blinded by moral panic. That is not the case, for the other side of moral panic is megalomania. Hyped notions of great breakthroughs and miraculous cures can drive entire research fields. Mental images that worry most people stimulate other personalities. Perhaps Paolo Macchiarini was such a personality, and perhaps he was promoted by a scientific culture of insane mental expectations on research and its heroes.

We need a therapeutic bioethics that can calm down the easily agitated intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

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


Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

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We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


More biobank ethics and law

March 13, 2017

Biobank and registry research comes with particular sets of legal and ethical issues. We explore some of them in our Biobank Perspectives newsletter.

In this issue, you can read about some of the challenges that arise when biobanking stem cells in relation to a new project on the legal and ethical aspects of using stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes. We also offer a progress update from the B3Africa project and present the new Swedish legal officer BBMRI-ERIC ELSI helpdesk.  You can also read about the Swedish Government Inquiry  that was presented recently, proposing a new legal framework for handling and investigating research misconduct, with a new act suggested to enter into force on 1st of January 2019.

Josepine Fernow & Anna-Sara Lind

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


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