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Moral Philosophy Unit 1

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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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Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

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

    10pyre as the natural and fitting way to dispose of the dead.

    The theory of cultural relativism claims that there are only these various cultural codes and no universal truths in ethics and thus that the discipline of applied ethics, which is an attempt to discover these truths, is futile. On this view a particular cultural code is no better and no worse than any other and as such there can be no independent standard by which these cultural differences can be judged.

    However, while this theory of cultural relativism may seem initially quite plausible there are serious flaws in its argument. Rachels claims that if we were to take cultural relativism seriously three main problems arise:

    i) We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally

    11inferior to our own’ For instance, we would not be able to say that slavery

    or the destruction of Jews was wrong.

    ii) We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the

    standards of our society […] few of us think of our society’s [moral] code as

    perfect - we can think of ways that it could be improved. Yet Cultural

    Relativism would not only forbid us from criticising the codes of other

    12societies; it would stop us from criticising our own.’

    13iii) ‘The idea of moral progress is called into doubt’. We usually think that

    some changes in society are for the better e.g. the changes in the place of

    women in society. If Cultural Relativism is correct how can we think of this

    as progress?

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

    p.15 11 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy [2nd Edition] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993)

    p.21 12 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy [2nd Edition] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993)

    p.21

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     Activity 5;

    In your own words, answer the questions below.

What is cultural relativism?

    

Explain the thinking behind 2 arguments that have been used in an attempt to

    show that the theory of cultural relativism is implausible. 1

2.

     Now check your answers against the sample answers at the end of this Section.

     13 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy [2nd Edition] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993) p.22

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    Ethics and the Role of Reason

    We thus return to the role of reason in applied ethics. Earlier in this section Rachels told us that

    [m]orality is, first and foremost, a matter of consulting reason: the morally

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

    14reasons for doing.

    It is this central role of reason that characterises applied ethics and distinguishes it from personal taste, unsubstantiated opinion and cultural norms. As Harris emphasises:

    While it is true that there are many different moral outlooks and perspectives,

    and perhaps equally many and various ethical theories, all presuppose the

    possibility of moral argument. Indeed, all people who think that it is possible

    either to do wrong, or for that matter to do what’s right, depend upon and use

    moral argument. This reveals a very important fact about the nature of morality

    and hence about the nature of ethics. It is simply that if something is right or

    wrong, morally right or wrong, there must be some reason why this is so. And

    15reasons can always be scrutinised for their adequacy.

    Reason has a central role in ethics: if I am to defend my ethical position I must produce reasons for it. I may appeal to a moral theory or principle to defend my position or simply show that the reasoning behind other positions are flawed, they may be inconsistent, for example, or the premises they are based on may be false.

The Possibility of Ethical Expertise

    It would be convenient if there were a simple recipe for constructing good

    arguments and avoiding bad ones. Unfortunately, however, there is no

    simple method available. Arguments can go wrong in an indefinite

    number of ways, and one must always stay alert to the possibility of new

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

    p.10.

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    kinds of error. But that is not surprising. Their rote application of routine

    methods is never a satisfactory substitute for critical intelligence, in any

    16area. Moral thinking is no exception.

    While Rachels points out that there is no simple recipe for effective ethical analysis, Dare submits that recognising the role of reason in ethics allows us to give an account of ethical expertise. While he concedes that just what such expertise consists in is no doubt controversial, he claims that a list of the ethical expert’s characteristics is likely to include the following:

    i) Proficient reasoning reason logically, avoid fallacies and inconsistencies, to

    clarify and analyse concepts, to construct and assess arguments and positions. ii) Require certain body of knowledge knowledge of philosophical problems,

    questions, positions, and theories, knowledge of the assumptions,

    consequences and criticisms of different positions or views, knowledge of

    types of argument and likely problems.

    By aspiring to these characteristics the hope is that this ethical expert

    will be a person who is skilled at a certain form of reasoning, who has at her

    finger tips a body of relevant knowledge, and who is committed to using those

    skills and knowledge to assess the strengths and weaknesses of moral arguments

    17and positions.

Activity 6;

    In your own words, answer the questions below.

     15 John Harris, The Value of Life: An Introduction to Medical Ethics, (London: Routledge & Kegan

    Paul, 1985,1991) p.4 16 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy [2nd Edition] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993),

    p.12 17 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics,

    Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) p.186.

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Philosophical Bioethics Section 2

    Although there is no simple recipe for constructing good arguments and avoiding bad ones there are certain characteristics that will usually be present in a successful ethical argument. List two of these characteristics. 1.

2.

     Now check your answers against the sample answers at the end of this Section.

Suggested Further Reading

    This Section has used information from a number of sources to explain the role of moral philosophy in discussion of medical dilemmas. In order to gain a more complete picture of the issues and familiarise yourself with the original texts it is suggested that you read at least one of the texts listed below.

John Harris, ‘The Scope and Importance of Bioethics’ in John Harris, (Ed.)

    Bioethics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

     Raanan Gillon, Philosophical Medical Ethics, (John Wiley & Sons on

    behalf of the British Medical Journal, 1985, 1986) Chapters 1, 5 and 6 Tim Dare, ‘Applied Ethics, Challenges to’ in Ruth Chadwick (ed.)

    Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Volume 1, (San Diego: Academic Press,

    1998) pp. 183-190 [available in the study pack which accompanies this

    Course Unit]

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