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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Eyeing the end of the road...

Section IV and the conclusion.


Section IV

The third pillar relates to theory.

The engaged ethicist will be mindful that consensus, or at least broad approval, is required before any resolution can be enacted. Epistemic peers, even when they agree on the non-moral facts, can, after equally reflective, well-reasoned and considered reflection, still disagree on the morally ‘right’ resolution. Such determinations may, at bottom, be rooted in personality differences as much as contrasting theoretical frameworks (Persson 2018; Rachels 1997; Ives and Dunn 2010). I lack space to defend this here, but intuitively it seems wrong in group decision-making to impose a single theoretical perspective when there is no agreed way to adjudicate between ethical theories.

The engaged ethicist will therefore not be wedded to a particular approach. Indeed, in real-life situations, value pluralism makes practical and ethical sense. There is an established tradition in practical bioethics of working, not with one prevailing theory, but with mid-level values, such as the four principles: beneficence, non-maleficence, justice and autonomy (Beauchamp, Childress, and Childress 2001). A pluralistic approach allows the engaged ethicist to weigh different potential resolutions offered by various approaches. Such reflective equilibrium is also an accepted feature of practical ethics deliberation.

The approach bears some resemblance to John Dewey’s ‘pragmatism’, in that the engaged ethicist will employ ‘moral reasoning as an experimental activity carried out in the context of specific “problematic situations”’ (Minteer 2004). Ultimately, in situations like the test case, ‘the ‘‘rightness’’ of a moral claim does not depend on the intrinsic nature of a value or principle underlying this claim, but on the extent to which it contributes to the resolution’ of the real-life issue (Kupper and De Cock Buning 2011).

In addition, by exploring a variety of different theoretical perspectives, she may highlight morally relevant factors that might be otherwise occluded. For example, considering feminist theories might alert her to existing disparities of harms (the higher prevalence of depression among women and perhaps epistemic injustices along gender lines in research institutions) and the importance of care. Clearly, a full review of the animal ethics literature would be vital.

The engaged ethicist will accept that reality is not as malleable as we might wish, nor are other people, and that compromise may be necessary. She is not making a grand theoretical claim about what is right and true, but instead seeking to propose an attentive and comprehensively considered resolution that is reasonable, practical, provisional and better than what is, which could conceivably be agreed upon and put into practice.

Of course, while perspectival pluralism allows the engaged ethicist to ‘triangulate’ a resolution, which will hopefully reach a standard of overlapping consensus, there is still no guarantee that moral ‘truth’ has been obtained, nor that there will not be ethical costs.

An opponent might suggest that through giving weight to real-life constraints, non-theoretically grounded moral intuitions and a variety of theoretical approaches rather than basing her analysis on one ideal theory, the engaged ethicist could permit a moral wrong. For example, were the recommendation in this case a ban on rodent use in depression research but permitted use of rodents, if unavoidable and necessary, in the development of alternatives, PB, from Section I, could argue that this would constitute an unethical violation of rights. This is a forceful objection.

My response is that the engaged ethicist has to be operating from somewhere, and that somewhere is the generally accepted ethical terrain of the society in which the real-life issue takes place. Engaged ethics is, therefore, more evolutionary than revolutionary. It is provisional, not claiming to find the one eternal true answer. It is changing a rotten plank on Theseus’ ship, rather than destroying the whole vessel and constructing a catamaran.

As I see it, there is a division of labour. Wolff writes that ‘a longer-term project is also possible…: to set out arguments and visions of other ways of doing things that might hope to shape the values that people hold. If successful then for future generations the policy context, and the debate, will be different’ (Wolff 2012). The role of philosophical ethics is to design the catamaran, shape the ‘ideal’ resolution. However, resolving the issue at hand, now, in the imperfect real world, is the role of the engaged ethicist. Where Theseus’ ship is still regarded as ‘good enough’, she tries to make it better; where the catamaran has been designed, she hopes to help turn the blueprint into reality; but, in rare cases, it might be that she is wrongly seeking to repair a sinking ship.

It is a risk that in getting her hands dirty in the business of consensus-building and compromise she may be left with dirty hands. If the only consensus that can be reached contravenes a moral view she strongly holds, such as a rights issue, she could, and I believe should, resign from the committee. But it is also plausible that through her engagement with testimony, she might recognise when an evolution of values is in order, as outlined in Section III, as well as better placed than a philosophical ethicist ’to make philosophical arguments count in some real and efficacious way’ (Rollin 1981) and to argue for that evolution to be represented in policy, due to her better understanding of the complexity of the situation.

The task demands courage as well as practical wisdom and a rigorous awareness of the need to avoid possible wrongs. Wolff describes his approach as largely focused on harm-limitation. This seems fitting in a situation where a resolution, when enacted, may affect the lives of many different groups, with varying interests.

Therefore, despite the risk, I would argue that this approach to theory, appreciating as it does the moral complexity of real-life situations, provides the third pillar to support my claim.


I have argued that the detailed examination of the real-life situation, taking into account real-life constraints, as well as engaging with testimony and sociology, to fully appreciate how people actually behave, before applying theory and carefully determining a resolution that limits harms, maximises benefits and is better than what is, would give the engaged ethicist a better chance of making an ethically beneficial impact on a real-life issue.

As I said at the start, I am not claiming that engaged bioethics offers the one and only answer. I hope instead to have made a strong case that in certain situations it is indeed better placed than philosophical bioethics to resolve a real-life issue in the biosciences.

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