Philosophy, Bioethics and Otherworldliness


So Brian L picked up on Catarina’s post that picked up on Brian E’s post that picked up on the ever-simmering stuff about male circumcision – and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy position in particular – with the comment “Philosophers are a bit unworldly, but this is still quite something”.  I take the implication of that to be that, even by the standards of philosophers, this debate is abstract and abstruse and perhaps even a little omphalosceptic.

The comment reminds me of a conversation that Muireann Quigley and I had with someone – I can’t remember who – a couple of IAB’s ago: this unknown person – whom I think was a medic rather than a philosopher – was wondering aloud about the number of papers on things like enhancement, and IVF, and so on, and whether there weren’t more important things for bioethicists to think about – notably what to do about the various things that actually do directly threaten the life and welfare of real people right now.

And so I got to wondering about whether philosophers can get too self-involved, hypothetical, and distracted by peripheral issues.  For example, to return to the circumcision thing: it may be that circumcising boys significantly wrongs them, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a great harm.  Circumcision of girls is a significant wrong, too, but the harm is greater – and so stopping that practice may strike us as more urgent just for that reason.  But it wouldn’t be completely incoherent or mostrous for someone to think that some third thing was more pressing a concern than either: if rescuing the child from the pond for some reason means missing out on the opportunity to lobby against genital mutilation, then you should rescue the drowning person all the same.

Quite how we prioritise things might be a matter for debate – and there’s an important higher-order question about how you rank harms and wrongs, and how you could compare significantly harmful situations with significantly wrongful ones, given that neither implies the other.  Still, the idea that A might be more morally important than B, which is more important than C or D or E isn’t crazy; and the idea that male circumcision (for the sake of argument, a significant wrong but much less significant harm) is quite a long way down the alphabet doesn’t seem unreasonable either.  So there’s some sense in the idea that it’s a bit strange to devote a huge amount of attention to it.

But this presents us with the first defence of otherworldliness – or, at least, what might seem like otherworldliness.  Given that there’s any number of calls on our moral attention, we need some way to figure out which are the most pressing, and whether all of them are pressing in any way at all.  Working that out might be a whole lot easier, and the answers easier to illustrate, by means of thought-experiments that are not directly related to particularly pressing real-world needs.

Second, in the process of doing that, we might well find that there are all manner of interesting real-world problems that present themselves that we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.  Some of them – like circumcision, for example, might not be hugely pressing: but, on the other hand, they might strike us as being low-hanging fruit.  Third, being slightly unworldly allows bioethicists to do horizon-scanning work, and so ought to make it easier to respond to pressing needs when they do arise.  Famously, a lot of policymakers and bioethicists were caught on the hop when Dolly the sheep was cloned, and there was a lot of legal and moral catching up to be done, some of which was quite poor; but bioethics as a discipline is now – at least in that field – much better prepared to deal with the kinds of new technologies that could start to appear over the coming couple of decades (I think.  But then again, there might be something else that noone foresaw…).  A lot of ground on genetic ethics, ectogenesis, and so on has been secured that arguably wouldn’t have been if bioethicists had paid their full attention on what is currently a pressing need.

Fourth – and I think that this is quite important – philosophy as a whole is quite otherworldly (in the sense of being impractical, and in the sense of being vorhanden), but a similar charge can be pressed against any number of other disciplines.  Do x-ray crystallographers or cosmologists or anthropologists do much directly to relieve current significant harms and right current significant wrongs?  Unlikely.  Does that mean that their time could be better spent?  In one sense, perhaps – more lives will be saved and the common weal advanced by providing a latrine in every village, and they could be helping on that front.  Does that mean that people oughtn’t to be x-ray crystallographers or cosmologists or anthropologists?  Not a bit of it.  Some things are worth doing because their benefits are indirect; but sometimes, they’re worth doing for their own sake.  Whether they’re more worth doing for their own sake than some other thing is a matter for debate – but it’s a debate that takes us straight back to the ranking problem.  So I think that there is often a defence to the charge of otherworldliness – it can be of indirect benefit – and sometimes there doesn’t have to be a defence.

Thoughts, anyone?  If there’re no comments, I’ll assume that I’m wrong, and everyone’s out digging a latrine.  Well done.