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Moral Philosophy Unit 1

By Clara Phillips,2014-05-09 21:09
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Moral Philosophy Unit 1

Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

    1Doing bioethics

Aims

    At the end of this section you should

     have a greater understanding of the methodology of medical ethics

     have been introduced to some of the terms and principles utilised in this

    course unit and in moral philosophy in general

    The previous section explained that asking what is ethically acceptable is not the same as asking what is legally permissible - we cannot determine what the right thing to do is simply by looking at the statutes, legal precedent or policy (General Medical Council, etc) in this area. Neither is ethics simply about what each individual believes about a particular issue, since people may simply not have thought about the issues in any real depth. So if we cannot answer an ethical questions i.e. 'Is x ethically acceptable?' by finding out whether it is acceptable in terms of law or policy or by simply explaining our beliefs or intuitions about x, then how do we answer ethical questions adequately?

    This section aims to explain what we are being asked when we face the question 'Is x ethically acceptable?' and how we should arrive at our answer.

Doing applied ethics

    The nature of medical dilemmas is often such that they produce strong feelings from those who encounter them. We only need to consider reactions to the possibility of new technologies such as cloning, genetic engineering, xenotransplantation, ‘designer’ babies, selective reduction of pregnancy, embryo experimentation, euthanasia, and so on, to convince us of this. However, feelings are not sufficient to

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Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

    solve these dilemmas. James Rachels points out that these feelings may be nothing but the products of prejudice, selfishness, or cultural conditioning and argues that

    if we want to discover the truth, we must try to let our feelings be guided as

    much as possible by the reasons, or arguments, that can be given for the

    opposing views. Morality is, first and foremost, a matter of consulting reason:

    the morally right thing to do, in any circumstance, is determined by what there

    2are the best reasons for doing.

    This, simply put is what the discipline of applied ethics involves. By applying the techniques and principles of moral philosophy to these practical dilemmas, applied ethics aims, not only to enable better understanding of the nature of moral problems, but to try and resolve them. Instead of basing our decisions about these dilemmas on our unsubstantiated feelings, the clarification and investigation of concepts and beliefs enables the arguments on all sides to be evaluated in an attempt to produce the best answer to the problem, an answer based on reasons rather than feelings. Clearly, some reasons may be better than others and determining how compelling a reason is a large part of what applied ethics is about.

    Moral philosophers believe there is such a things as moral truths. In the same way that scientists put forward hypotheses in order to attempt to get closer to the truth about the physical world, so moral philosophers attempt to get nearer the moral truth by putting forward arguments for scrutiny. If these arguments are shown to be inadequate then they are rejected for a superior argument. This process allows us to gain a greater understanding of the moral world and to get increasingly closer to the moral truth about such issues.

    In order to clarify further the nature of applied ethics and the role it has in the analysis of medical dilemmas we will now look at some of the arguments that claim that applied ethics is not useful.

     1 Much of this section is based on Rebecca Bennett’s short electronic course ‘Introduction to Health Care Ethics and Law’. This and other courses are available as CPD packages. 2 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy [2nd Edition] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993)

    p.10.

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Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

    3Applied Ethics and Scepticism

    There is scepticism as to whether it is possible to resolve moral problems. Doubt has also been expressed as to whether philosophers should be the ones to investigate these problems. This may be because it is thought that, in the case of medical ethics, it is the health care professional who is best equipped to deal with these problems. Or there may be those who reject the notion that there are moral truths, claiming that ultimately morality is a personal and subjective matter, and as such one person’s

    beliefs are as good as another’s and it is impossible to choose between them. As Tim Dare puts it

    Very crudely, the idea is that in ethics there are merely opinions, and that as

    a result no one can give authoritative advice as to what is right and what is

    wrong. [...]Each person’s assessment of the right thing to do is in this sense

    at least as good as anyone else’s….but the idea that ethics is ‘personal’ in

    the sense that I cannot be definitely overruled by others in ethical matters

    4does not mean that ethics is as personal as taste is personal.

    Dare explains why he believes that morality is not merely a matter of personal opinions by suggesting a number of differences between personal tastes and personal moral judgements:

i) ‘If my tastes change I do not suppose that I was mistaken and that I have now

    5 come to the correct view’.

    ii) ‘[T]he way in which taste is personal seems to make certain kinds of

    6 disagreement over matters of taste impossible’.

     3 This section ‘What is Applied Ethics?’ is based largely on Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press,

    1998)pp.183-190 4 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,

    Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) p.184. 5 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,

    Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) p.185. 6 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,

    Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) p.185.

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    iii) ‘[I]f ethical judgements were like taste it would be odd and futile to try and

    7 convince someone that their moral views were mistaken’.

    Dare asserts, then, that these distinctions show that there is more to morality than subjective opinion, concluding:

    Ethics then is not just a matter of taste. We can make sense of the idea of

    genuine moral disagreement, it seems to make perfectly good sense to try and

    convince people they are mistaken about ethical matters, and we change our

    8minds about such matters in response to argument and reason.

    It is then, the role of reason that distinguishes personal tastes from moral judgements. James Rachels makes this same point, saying:

    In this way moral judgements are different from mere expressions of personal

    taste - If someone says ‘I like coffee’ he does not need to have a reason - he is

    merely making as statement about himself, and nothing more. There is no such

    thing as ‘rationally defending’ one’s like or dislike of coffee, and so there is no

    arguing about it. So long as he is accurately reporting his tastes, what he says

    must be true. Moreover, there is no implication that anyone else should feel the

    same way; if everyone else in the world hates coffee, it doesn’t matter. On the

    other hand, if someone says that something is morally wrong, he does need

    reasons, and if his reasons are sound, other people must acknowledge their force.

    But if he has no good reason for what he says, he is just making noise and we

    9need pay him no attention.

Activity 4;

    To provide a useful summary of the issues in this Section, in your own words, answer the question below.

     7 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,

    Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) p.185. 8 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,

    Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) p.184.

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    ? The University of Manchester, 2009 all rights reserved.

Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

    Explain the thinking behind arguments that oppose the claim that a person’s moral beliefs are subjective just like a persons tastes and it is impossible to choose between them.

    

;

     Now check your answers against the sample answers at the end of

    this Section.

Cultural Relativism

    Another related argument against the usefulness of applied ethics is the theory of cultural relativism. There is no doubt that there are very different views about what is seen as ethically acceptable in different cultures. Consider the example Rachels gives of how what is thought right in one culture may be viewed as abhorrent in another culture:

    Darius, a king of ancient Persia, was intrigued by the variety of cultures he

    encountered in his travels. He had found, for example, that the Callatians (a

    tribe of Indians) customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks, of

     9 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy [2nd Edition] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993),

    pp.10-11

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Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

    course, did not do that the Greeks practised cremation and regarded the funeral

 &nbs