A pragmatic approach to bioethics

We’re just about to get down to cases in Bioethics. Today we’ll sort ourselves into discussion groups, each of which will be getting its own new case to unwrap and explore every class for the next several weeks. Topics will typically reflect the sprawling quality of this relatively-new field. Next time, for instance, we’ll be looking at synthetic biology, intelligent design, psychopharmacolgy, and robot ethics.

Speaking of ‘bots: Did you catch Ray Kurzweil’s interview in the Times Magazine yesterday, touching on one of our many topics-to-come (from Case 25)?

This idea of creating a whole virtual body with nanobots, that’s more like a 2050 scenario. But by the 2030s we’ll be putting millions of nanobots inside our bodies to augment our immune system, to basically wipe out disease. One scientist cured Type I diabetes in rats with a blood-cell-size device already.

Ray goes on to say he’d shift his focus to cancer research, if he felt the need personally. Hmmm.

Our tour guide across the varied bioethical landscape is the controversial but astute Glenn McGee, founding editor of The American Journal of Bioethics and fellow Vandy alum. Seems I’ve been following Glenn for awhile now, out of grad school, in and out of Belmont University (just a cameo there, in my case), and now I’ll be following his lead in structuring our course according to his design in a breezy, enlightening, informative, provocative, and (I’m sorry to report) less than meticulously copy-edited new volume that should still suit our purposes to a tee: Bioethics for Beginners: 60 Cases and Cautions From the Moral Frontier of Healthcare.

Here’s Glenn discussing the old muddled dream of human perfectibility through eugenics.

Like the good pragmatist he is, and anticipating Michael Sandel later in the semester, he’ll reject the case for perfection in general. But he’ll also make a strong pragmatic case for ameliorating life to the extent of our powers, ethically and (so far as we can manage it) progressively. This is right up my own pragmatic alley. Introducing Pragmatic Bioethics a few years ago, McGee noted that

John Dewey and William James, the latter a physician, are but two of the figures in classical American philosophy who devoted quite a bit of attention to the role of their philosophy in reconstructing the social meaning of health care… Scholars of classical American philosophy… were among those who created what is today called bioethics.

And that makes this a “perfect” class for us to tackle.

One more thing, Downton fans: isn’t it sad about Lady Sibyl!? Do you think the specialist ob-gyn (“Sir Philip Tapsell”) violated any ethical rules last night? Could or should “Dr. Clarkson” have done anything more? Are there rules for resolving discordant medical opinions? Let the chauffeur decide?


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