Why do Human Scientists sometimes shun Bioethicists? A GLEUBE Polemic

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Globalising European Bioethics Education, or Gleube as it is more commonly known, is a project headed up by the University of Central Lancaster and in partnership with Cardiff University, Dublin City University, University of Helsinki and University of Oslo. Along with its various other endeavours i welcomes ‘polemics’ on bioethics or bioethically related subjects for publication on its website. A couple of previous ones caught my eye, particularly two by Markus Neuvonen of the University of Helsinki and a Gluebe Research Associate. These were "How hard we want our facts?” and “Why do bioethicists sometimes shun social sciences?” Lets just say I don’t entirely agree. So I wrote my own, as anyone is welcome to do so.

The result was: Why do Human Scientists sometimes shun Bioethicists? Let me know what you think!

These bioethicists certainly are a funny lot, anyone would think that those who see to examine, analyse and proffer ethical advice would be some kind of human scientists. You know, an interdisciplinary sort who draws on an interdisciplinary perspective. A general academic intellectual type who makes use of the diverse knowledge and methodologies of fields such as history, the humanities, sociology, anthropology, medicine, psychology, cognitive science, law and education all tied up in a socio-cultural philosophy which recognises the centrality of Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s insights on language. I mean it is an ideal, one which perhaps no-one could live up to, but wouldn’t you think that such an approach would be the central one for an emergent and developing modern discipline seeking synthesis in a multicultural, ethically and interpretively pluralist society? Yet for some reason they all seem to be analytic philosophers or, worse, those legal, jurisprudential types. Perfectly acceptable in its way, but do they all have to do that?

The strangest thing that these bioethicists do is that they keep trying to tidy up language. Trying to find absolute definitions of terms, attempting to set necessary and sufficient condition for this that and the other. A bit like Durkheim and his definition of suicide. [1] Which is a very good definition of suicide in the abstract, I hear even analytic philosophers quote it approvingly,[2] but wasn’t that the problem with it? As Douglas showed, you can define what suicide might be all you like but if that is not how suicide is determined in practice well, what use is it? [3] If you want to study the world, particularly the world of ethical judgments, you cannot just go around pretending your own definitions are what everyone else is using, as nice as that might be. Honestly, did no-one mention to them the value of ethnography and the importance of thick ethical descriptions in understanding cultures of morality? Do they really think the diverse cultural practices of medicine and healthcare can be ethically governed by four, just four, principles? And what is a principle when it leaves a philosophy paper anyway. Aren’t they just concepts, words, a taxonomy which allows healthcare professionals to delineate and define ‘the ethical’ in their day-to-day practice. These principles, they’re an ecumenicism, a way of getting on the same page, to discuss something important whilst remaining focused on the tasks at hand. The way some of these bioethicists talk you’d think they want everything to stop whilst every ethical difficulty is hammered out in a rigorous analytic philosophy style. When has that ever resulted in an answer? Are they absolutely certain of any ethical judgements that are not tautologies?

Us human scientists welcome the empirical turn of bioethics and bioethicists but, well, couldn’t they be a bit more human about it? It is very difficult for us to all to get on in this brave new bioethical world if the bioethicists treat all empirical data like some sort objective fact to which they unproblematically apply some reified abstract philosophical theory. In fact, didn’t one of them write about how this engineering model of applied ethics was fundamentally misguided sometime ago? [4] Goldthorpe once wrote that sociologists often appear to “depend upon what is an essentially positivistic conception of historiography – to which they would, I suspect, be reluctant to give any explicit support." [5] The same could be said of bioethicists; they often appear to rely on a positivistic conception of the social and human sciences to which they would, I suspect, be reluctant to give an explicit support. What is it with this obsession with the fact-value distinction? Didn’t we put this to bed ages ago? There are no value free facts, we all know this, did they not get the memo? Wasn’t it the philosophers of science who first realised this? These bioethicists are philosophers after all, have they not read any introductions to the philosophy of social sciences. There might be a place for positivism or even empiricism but do they really think that the study of human moral and ethical practices is one of them?

You know if things go on like this in bioethics much longer they’ll become seen as part of the problem, not the solution. Cheerleaders for science they’ll say. The first to trumpet the rather speculative benefit; the first to play down possible dangers; and the first to reproduce the unexamined sociologically norm whether it be sex, gender, body type, sexual relationships or reproductive choice. Such ideals render us all the same. Is that what they want? Shouldn’t they be speaking up for the patient, the disabled, the test subject and the public rather than the science, the scientist, the medic or the government? Don’t we need a bioethics from below?

The reader should be aware that this monologue is a reconstruction written from field notes and memory shortly after it was covertly observed in a coffee house by Nathan Emmerich (Queen’s University Belfast) who, as it happens, considers himself to be both a bioethicist and a human scientist. No ethical approval was given and anyway, this is polemicism not research so that’s alright isn’t it? He guessed at the appropriate references.



1 E. Durkheim. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Routledge. 2002.

2 N. Emmerich. Rational and Ethical Suicide. Unpublished MA Dissertation. The University of Leeds. 2004. Available from the Author on Request.

3 J.D. Douglas. The Social Meanings of Suicide. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press. 1973.

4 A.L Caplan, “Ethical Engineers Need Not Apply: The State of Applied Ethics Today,” Science, Technology, & Human Values. 1980. 6(33): pp.24-32.

5 J.H. Goldthorpe, “The Uses of History in Sociology: Reflections on Some Recent Tendencies,” The British Journal of Sociology. 1991. 42(2): p.221.


Nathan Emmerich is a PhD student at Queen's University Belfast researching the teaching and learning of medical ethics on the undergraduate medical degree from an interdisciplinary perspective. He was recently awarded the European Society for the Philosophy of Medicine and Healthcare (ESMPH) Young Scholar Essay Prize and is the lead organisor of the forthcoming 5th UK and Ireland postgaduate conference in Bioethics, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the Foundation for Sociology of Health and Illness (FSHI) and Cesagen. (www.postgradbioethics.org.uk)