Monday, November 25, 2013

What is bioethics? Is Margaret Somerville a bioethicist or a Roman Catholic apologist?

I had an interesting conversation with a student the other day. She's studying "bioethics" at the University of Toronto. This is a program run by the Deptment of Philosophy.

I asked her to define "bioethics" and she couldn't. To her credit, she immediately recognized that this wasn't right. If she's taking an entire program in bioethics she ought to be able to explain what it was all about. She was then joined by her friend, who is also majoring in bioethics. My colleague, Chris DiCarlo also joined us. He's a philosopher writing a book on ethics.

We described a scenario where I wanted to end my life and Chris was willing to help me. Neither of us have an "ethical" problem with that decision. So why is assisted suicide thought to be a problem for bioethics? If some people don't want to participate in euthanasia then nobody is going to make them? Where's the problem?

Does it only become a bioethical problem if some people want to impose their views on others? In this case, the people who are personally opposed to euthansia want to pass a law preventing me from ending my life with the help of my friend. Our students were puzzled by this discussion. Even though they have taken many courses on bioethics, nobody had ever raised this issue. Isn't that strange? You would think that any program run by a Department of Philosophy would emphasize critical thinking. Sadly, this turns out to be rare whenever the topic of bioethics comes up.

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