Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science
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
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.