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  • Field notes
  • Erik Parens, Senior Research Scholar

A good label is hard to find. I returned not long ago from a meeting of the Society of Christian and Jewish Ethics in Miami, where I spoke at a workshop on the social and ethical implications of behavioral genetics research. Appropriately enough, the first speaker in this day-long event was a behavioral geneticist. As far as I can tell, this person is about as decent and smart as people come. But in his opening comments, he said something like, "Talking to ethicists makes me nervous. I feel a little like I'm talking to my dad. I'll try to behave."

Of course he was just breaking the ice, but his words reflect what I think is a common view of people who, like me, are called "bioethicists." We are, in this view, priggish or foolish enough to claim expert knowledge about how other people are leading and should lead their lives.

Now some "bioethicists" do have expert knowledge about some important matters. For example, some know about the rules that govern the ethical conduct of research involving human subjects. Notwithstanding disagreements about how to interpret those rules, these people possess expertise. Similarly, bioethicists who work in hospitals and help resolve disputes involving patients know and strive to uphold the standards of clinical bioethics consultation—itself an emerging profession. They can claim no expert knowledge about the right outcome of those disputes, but arguably they are experts in helping to resolve them.

And finally, shifting to another kind of example, some bioethicists have expertise in the history of a given debate. If you jumped into a discussion about embryonic stem cell research and knew nothing about how the embryo debate has unfolded here and abroad, a bioethicist at your elbow could be helpful. But she could not tell you once and for all what the moral status of an embryo is, nor whether this line of research will make us more or less humane, nor how to balance the potential benefits of this research against the potential benefits of some other kind of research—nor many other vitally important things.

I dislike being called a bioethicist (although I admit I don't have a good alternative) because I do not want anybody to think that I think I have expertise about these things. These matters have to do, I believe, with questions about our relationship to the rest of the natural world, about the psychology of human beings, about the proper relationship between the individual and society, and so on. Ultimately, such questions depend on the further question regarding the nature of human flourishing. In a society that has experts on just about everything, it seems only natural that somebody should be expert on that most important and pressing of questions. Alas, as far as I can tell, while we would do well to spend our lives, like Socrates, asking that most important question—we should do so only so long as we remember that, as soon as we think we've got "the answer," it's time to start the conversation over. [End Page 1]



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Archived 2012
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