UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ethics by the people Pawliuk, George Kevin


The Problem I will be addressing is, quite simply, "What role, if any, can philosophers legitimately play in biomedical ethics?" When one considers the recent backlash against ethical theory; philosophers' own dissatisfaction with their relationship with biomedicine; and the depth and urgency of the pertinent moral issues, it is nearly impossible to be unmoved by the enormity of the challenge. But will philosophy meet the challenge? Many of those who are familiar with the current state of biomedical ethics are inclined to be doubtful. The thesis I shall advance and defend is that this doubt is well-founded if we suppose that philosophers continue to apply their theoretical resources in biomedicine in the same manner as has usually been done. Unless philosophers dramatically change the nature of their approach in biomedical ethics, they will continue to face frustration and to be regarded as ineffectual. The role they must adopt requires them to work with many others (nurses, patients, doctors, lawyers, etc.) as equals, bringing their skills and talents to bear along with the skills and talents of non-philosophers. Without a strong inter-dependence between philosophers and non-philosophers, biomedical ethics will not prosper, nor evolve into the kind of tool that is direly needed in the health sciences. In order to defend the thesis I am advancing, I will survey some of the literature that has dealt with the problems facing philosophers in the clinic in recent years. The case against biomedical ethics (and, in particular, normative ethical theory) will be explored to reveal the content of the criticisms and their force. Following some discussion of these criticisms, pursued in order to discover elements of a new approach to the role philosophers can legitimately play in biomedical ethics, I will attempt to build a constructive alternative from these positive fragments. My conclusion, very generally, is that philosophers' skills and resources permit them to function best in close cooperation with others. I will rely on an account of a public forum (comprised of doctors, patients, theologians, nurses, etc.) to illustrate the kind of role philosophers could most effectively and legitimately pursue. Because of the nature of their activities, philosophers would, for example, often play an important role in isolating and defending significant value questions. A strong sense of inter-dependence would develop as physicians and the forum interacted. Physicians, who must be active in their roles as moral agents, would primarily be concerned with developing rules, guidelines, etc. for practical cases. Physicans would be assisted by a small group of non-physicians to ensure that important social goals are taken into account. The forum would act as an external critic of these rules, both prospectively and retro-actively. The success of the forum would provide biomedical ethics with important practical input that should be used for its growth and development.

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