At today’s meeting, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) resumed its consideration of the many facets of effective deliberation and education surrounding bioethical issues by looking at two related issues: teaching ethics and deliberative skills, and fostering and measuring the efficacy of ethics-related education curriculum and deliberative processes.
In its 2014 report Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, the Bioethics Commission called for the integration of ethics and science through education at all levels. Today, the Bioethics Commission heard about pre-professional bioethics education with presentations from Sue Knight, Ph.D. of Primary Ethics Limited and Robert F. Ladenson, Ph.D. of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions.
Knight noted that it is possible to develop ethical literacy in students at all age levels. She said that while older students are able to engage more nuanced and morally complex situations, it can be surprising how very young children are able to identify ethical conduct. “Research shows that from the age of two and a half, children can distinguish between social convictions and moral laws,” Knight said.
Landenson has been seeking a greater focus at both the college and high school levels on deliberation and ethics by promoting an Ethics Bowl. Modeled on the Quiz Bowl format, student teams are assessed in their capacity to present and understand case studies in ethical quandaries. “The teams have to be able to listen to each other with an open mind,” said Landenson. “The team members have to be able to consider seriously different views and appreciate them, not in the sense of being persuaded, but in recognizing how a morally responsible person would hold that position.”
The next panel looked more broadly at what constitutes an effective approach to ethics education and, in a related discussion, what constitutes an effective deliberative process.
Carol Ripple, Ph.D., with Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute, said it can be a challenge to get educators involved in teaching ethics to step back and think about their impact because they are focused on developing their curriculum and “evaluation and measurement may be a distant thought.”
In a similar vein, Raymond De Vries, Ph.D, said there is also a growing interest today not just in convening deliberative bodies, but also in looking more closely at the nuts and bolts of a successful and meaningful deliberative process. He noted, among other things, that there are numerous pitfalls to be avoided in putting together a deliberative process to engage complicated bioethical issues. For example, he stressed, “I am worried about expert opinion overwhelming public opinion.”
John Gastil, Ph.D, said that one thing he has encountered in working with a wide variety of deliberative bodies is that size can matter—it can impact the ability of the body to carry out a functional set of discussions. For example, if the group is too large, he said, factions and coalitions can form that can cause a breakdown in the overall process. His magic number is 24.
“The reason that is a good number is that a 12 person jury gets a lot done but two dozen is what you need for more complex issues that we usually give people,” explained Gastil. “But it’s not so big that they can’t meet as a coherent entity and the group dynamics can be positive.”