When politics meets bioethics

Ethicists
disagree about very many things, but they broadly agree on how it is we should
disagree: by finding flaws in the reasoning that leads others to a contrary
conclusion, by putting forward arguments of our own, and so forth. The thought
(perhaps the illusion) is that through this process of critical discussion, we
will gradually approach the truth, the truth about what it is we ought to do.
Another assumption, and perhaps a greater illusion, is that all of this intense
debate will also eventually influence what people actually do—that it will
improve policy and practice. 

One
should not be pessimistic. There are various indirect processes and mechanisms
through which ethical argument might eventually influence the world, though I
suspect that ethicists would prefer not to know just how slow and limited this
influence is.

But
sometimes ethics and policy meet in broad daylight, and the result is often
dispiriting. I don’t just mean the media outrage that often follows the views
of Peter Singer—views that are controversial within ethics. For better or
worse, most ethics is fairly conservative, starting with assumptions and
intuitions that are widely shared by non-philosophers. So it is disturbing see
how much of the current (and very intemperate) debate about healthcare in the US has revolved
around the views of a distinguished bioethicist, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel. (For a
summary, see today’s New York Times article).
The almost pedantic precision with which ethicists formulate their claims, the care
with which they try to support them with good reasons—how little of this
matters when we turn to the political sphere, where the views of an ethicist
are merely potential ammunition for political manipulation. 

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