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01/29/2014

A RESPONSE TO: Bioethics Expertise In the Media of Public Opinion

by Nathan Emmerich

Having an interest in the nature and possibility of ‘Bioethical Expertise’ the recent blog post by Professor Klugman caught my eye. In it he summarizes a post I wrote for the Guardian’s Political Science blog with the suggestion that it “warns that one must not give greater weight to the opinion of a bioethics expert than to anyone else.” Whilst this is not an accurate representation of my views I wasn’t exactly surprised, to find it attributed to me. No doubt due to my own failings many misunderstood what I was trying to communicate. In fact, I do think that (bio)ethical expertise exists but I do not think this can justifies moral authority or ‘testimony’ in that way we would usually understand the term. As everyday moral agents we cannot simply cite an academic text as support for our ethical beliefs in the same way as we might do for other of our beliefs, such as the fact that black holes emit Hawking radiation. The point here is not whether or not there are moral facts but the way in which moral and ethical agency is ‘inalienable.’ Thus, everyday moral agents cannot act on the word of the ethical expert in the same way as they can do so in regards other experts, medical doctors say. Whilst the medical expert can take responsibility for treating their patients, the ethical expert cannot take responsibility for those they advice.

In my view this raises interesting questions for the morality of (bio)ethical expertise, particularly when deployed in democratic societies. Those we advise or engage are not only moral agents but, by the very act of listening and engaging with us, they are actively exercising their moral agency. The nature of expertise is such that the lay-person is at a sever disadvantage and we should, therefore, reject the view that bioethicists can simply lay out academic arguments. The lay-person is not served by this approach as, by definition, they lack the necessary expertise to critically assess and thereby engage with these arguments fully. Instead I suggest we distinguish between, on the one hand, a disciplined contributory ethical expertise, or what is required to produce academic publications, and, on the other hand, a practical interactional ethical expertise, or what is required for a fruitful, dialogical and mutually enlightening engagement between bioethical experts and non-experts. This view recognizes what we might call the ubiquitous moral expertise of all human agents. It also suggests that the weight we give to the opinions of bioethics experts should be considered less vital than the social, cultural and political role we have to play in our collective analysis of and response to the ethical dimension of medicine and the life sciences.

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