- Facts Alone Will Not Suffice for Bioethics
When you get old enough as a practitioner in any field young people seek your advice about what they should do if they want to do what you do. Given that my age seems to be increasing exponentially, this has been happening to me with increasing frequency. Undergraduates, high school students, medical students, those pursuing degrees in law and nursing and even those interested in a mid-career change have been asking me what they need to do if they want to pursue a career in bioethics.
I have thought about their question quite a bit. I have come to realize that the answer is not the same for everyone who presents the question. But, the core of the answer is pretty much the same: pursue masters level training in bioethics, acquire familiarity with key social science methods and tools, learn something about a particular sub-area of the health sciences or life sciences, and seek out every opportunity to fine tune your analytical and rhetorical skills by working with others on projects, research, consulting, or teaching activities. At its heart bioethics is an interdisciplinary activity and knowing how to work with others who do empirical, historical, legal and normative work is a must.
I had thought that advice to be sound until I heard Zeke Emanuel's plenary address to open the most recent annual meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and the Humanities. Emanuel espoused a vision for future bioethicists that I think is narrow, misguided and wrong. Now I say that in the spirit that Emanuel himself enjoys—vigorous debate about a matter that both of us consider of the gravest importance.
Zeke Emanuel, a physician with a degree in political science as well, is one of the best and brightest scholars in the field of bioethics. His writings are solid and exemplify how best to integrate empirical inquiry with normative analysis. And the 'shop' he has run at the NIH Clinical Center for many years prior to moving into the Office of Budget and Management to work on health reform has done an outstanding job training younger scholars in the ins and outs of bioethical inquiry. These facts are precisely why the recent plenary address to the American Society of Bioethics and the Humanities was so disappointing.
Emanuel began his speech by joking that he knew much of what he had to say would annoy his audience. He then proceeded to argue that the future of bioethics and of bioethicists depended upon the field moving away from its high public profile in political, media and policy debate. What bioethics needs, he argued, is a beefing up of the shabby empirical foundation it now relies upon for its normative and policy claims.
The only way for bioethics to flourish, to paraphrase Emanuel's key contention, is if bioethicists spend less time in public places, more time mastering quantitative methods and publishing empirically grounded research on topics such as informed consent and surrogate decision-making at the end-of-life in peer-reviewed journals. He also went on to add that he did not find any merit in masters or doctoral programs in bioethics since without a more robust empirical foundation there could be little value in such training.
A young, prospective bioethicist, Emanuel contended, would be best served seeking training in behavioral economics, psychology, decision theory or perhaps, he grudgingly conceded, sociology. Those armed with these tools could be expected to create the rigorous empirical foundation that bioethics now sorely lacks. Moreover, those willing to enter bioethics by heading down his prescribed path can expect generous financial support in the form of a pot of gold provided by a National Institutes of Health poised and eager to provide funding for rigorous research.
Before any future bioethicists answer Emanuel's clarion call for rigor by dusting off their applications to departments of economics and the behavioral sciences let me try to point out why his vision about what bioethics should be is severely myopic as well as inadequate.
Emanuel's call for bioethics to take a sharp empirical turn has power because it is embedded in...