About AE   About NHM   Contact Us   Terms of Use   Copyright Info   Privacy Policy   Advertising Policies   Site Map
Science Education Reform    
Custom Search of AE Site
spacer spacer

Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science Classes?

A New Look at an Old Debate

by Carolyn Csongradi

Definitions of some key terms...

Ethics is a discipline which attempts to examine and understand ways in which choices are made involving issues of right and wrong. The field of ethics uses the "raw material" of moral discussions to define two approaches which are (1) descriptive and (2) prescriptive. Descriptive ethics is concerned with examining and analyzing the reasons people give for moral beliefs and behavior in different cultures. This documentation describes the language and reasoning processes which are used by a particular group or individual to distinguish right from wrong. Prescriptive or normative ethics deals with what "ought" to be rather than what "is" giving reasons which are open to public scrutiny. What "ought" to be reflects the highest vision for conduct which is not only morally acceptable, but morally best. It is a search for authorative standards which govern moral choices. Both of these components, which lack sharp distinctions, involve a definition of ethics requiring reflection about moral conventions and reasoning.

Some philosophers argue that moral principles cannot be proven, that there are no moral truths, and moral behavior is not a rational subject. This is a form of philosophical skepticism. One of the most familiar forms of skepticism is relativism, which states that there is no one correct moral code for all times and peoples, that moral codes are relative to a culture or group. No effort will be made to address the issue of a common morality. The purpose of this paper is to examine different views of how knowledge and reasoning skills may be acquired, not to be prescriptive of ethical norms or moral values.

Bioethics, a branch of ethics, deals with moral problems in medicine and the life sciences. Physicians, patients and families seek guidelines to assist them in finding solutions to questions about quality of life issues. Numerous factors generate conflicts outside of the field of medicine - technology, economics, the law, new diseases like HIV and sociological and demographic changes.

In common terms, morality is the day-to-day practice of a group's or individual's view of what is perceived to be highest "good". The definition of "good" is variable across groups and societies. Cultural, religious, gender, and even generational differences function as lenses through which reality is filtered. They prevail in defining the vision of what is "good" behavior. These differences give rise to views such as those espoused in Christian, Kantian, Victorian moralities to name but a few. The practice of selecting the action which best exemplifies this vision might be thought of as one of identifying the societal conventions about right and wrong conduct. Integrity is the consistency with which one's behavior, day-in and day-out, reflects an attempt to express that individual's or group's view for what is "good" when faced with a moral conflict.

A problem becomes a moral conflict when a choice must be made and the consequences are painful, no matter which course of action is chosen. Moral behavior can be thought of as an expression of an individual's or group's interpretation of what is an acceptable choice. For example, our ability to resolve a conflict is tested when the decision involves more than a factual debate. A young woman suffers a massive stroke and can be kept breathing only with the assistance of a ventilator. The decision to shut-off the ventilator may be intellectually and medically straightforward; however, the emotional conflicts make the choice anything but easy. Why? Values, often deeply held and defended, influence the final choice made. When these values point towards opposing actions, they become a source of conflict and anxiety. The debate may be within oneself, with others, or society at large. Ethical theories can help define and clarify the process whereby individuals search for a rationale to support a particular course of action. In the final analysis, ethics or moral psychology is a field which studies how one person makes a difficult, personal choice at a particular moment in life.

How Do We Acquire Knowledge About Principles and Values?

Bioethics in Science Index

Science Education Reform Index

Let's Collaborate Index

Custom Search on the AE Site