Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission), has written eloquently about the idea of democratic deliberation. We asked her to explain this principle and discuss how it has influenced the work of the Bioethics Commission.
Blog.Bioethics.gov (B.B.G): What is democratic deliberation?
Amy Gutmann (A.G.): The best any democracy can do in the face of disagreement on complex issues is to have deliberation among a wide range of experts and involved citizens in a way that is transparent to the public. Open and robust dialogue is at the very heart of deliberative democracy, and I’ve worked hard to imbue the work of the Bioethics Commission with that principle.
Deliberative democracy is the opposite of sound-bite democracy. Democracies do better when people discuss – robustly and respectfully argue about – their differences. It’s the give-and-take of viewpoints with an aim of finding common ground and reaching mutual respect among citizens where that common ground is not possible. The common good of democracy includes living respectfully with our differences, while continually aspiring to create a society–and world–that is just for all.
B.B.G.: What is the purpose of the Bioethics Commission and how does democratic deliberation play a role?
A.G.: First and foremost, the Bioethics Commission is here to provide advice and guidance to President Obama to help him and his administration navigate the challenging questions that arise in our evolving and very complex era of biomedicine. Advances in biomedical research and related areas of science and technology can often create a range of ethical dilemmas. The Bioethics Commission seeks to identify and promote policies and practices that ensure that scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in a socially and ethically responsible manner.
Good policy is based on good advice. The Bioethics Commission’s job is to offer practical public policy advice grounded in scientific evidence and in debate on philosophical and ethical principles. The best advice we can give comes from respectful deliberation based on the best evidence available after a thorough review of the ethical implications. The Commission’s work is fully transparent and is conducted in public in a manner in which experts and members of the public can engage in high level and productive discussion.
B.B.G.: There are many ethical principles on which to ground the Bioethics Commission, why democratic deliberation?
A.G.: My commitment to learning, to service, and to open and respectful deliberation is in many ways an homage to my parents. My mother was a natural teacher, but she had no choice but to put her dream on hold–since she could not afford a college education and had to support her family during the Great Depression. My father escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1934, and also saved the lives of his family by urging and enabling them to join him shortly thereafter in India.
My parents were extraordinary people with great values, foresight, generosity, and courage, who had a powerful faith in America as the land of opportunity.
I bring those values and their example to bear at the Bioethics Commission. And I believe that it has served us well. From synthetic biology to reviewing the ethical considerations of conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures with children we have tackled some incredibly complex issues. It is a challenge that we embrace and the democratically deliberative process is key to finding common ground and an ethically sound path forward.
B.B.G.: Can you say a little about how the Commission balances a commitment to transparency and the need for a free exchange of ideas among its members that may be more likely to occur in a non-public setting?
A.G.: All deliberations of the Bioethics Commission occur at our public meetings. Some subcommittee work is done before those public meetings, but the subcommittees must present and report to the Commission as a whole and the Commission as a whole must discuss those findings before any recommendations can be deliberated.
B.B.G.: How do you think the Commission is doing as a deliberative body and what role can an “advisory commission” have in deliberative democracy?
A.G.: The Bioethics Commission Members need not – and do not – all agree on everything all of the time. Instead, we clearly identify critically important ethical and scientific issues and we reach consensus on what advice to offer on how to navigate these issues of public importance. On this advice, the Bioethics Commission has consistently reached consensus through our public deliberations.