How to be a good (consequentialist) bioethicist…

There has recently been a pattern of papers (and I am not going to identify which ones) which I take as being slightly embarrassing to academic bioethicists because they portray us in a less than flattering light because of the naive mistakes they seem to make, or the outlandish poorly argued claims they make. I have noted a trend for these to have come from relatively new, consequentialist bioethicists and being the helpful sort that I am, the aim of this blog post therefore is to help consequentialist bioethicists from falling into these pitfalls.

So you are a consequentialist, well we all have our crosses to bear, and contrary to the thinking of some, being a consequentialist doesn’t necessarily make you a bad bioethicist, afterall some of my best friends and admired colleagues are consequentialists…

And more seriously there are some great bioethicists such as Peter Singer and John Harris who are consequentialists or have consequentialist leanings such as Angus Dawson and serve, for the most part, as great models for how to do bioethics well. From looking carefully at their body of work you can deduce these useful rules of thumb for optimising the quality (and thus utility) of your academic work.

1. Be careful not to claim more than you can show
One clear sign of a good consequentialist bioethicist is that they are very careful to make sure that their claims, perturbing though they might be, follow directly from the argument they are making and do not go beyond that argument, even if their inclination is to make a stronger claim. Take for example John Harris’ great piece on the purported duty to volunteer for research – its so hard to argue against because Harris is very careful about his claims.

2. Don’t rest on your (consequentialist) laurels.
You as a consequentialist are convinced by consequentialist reasoning of course, but your audience goes beyond consequentialists, so rather than writing the extremely dull sort of paper that says something like “in regards to issue x, y would maximise the consequences so we should do it” look for broader arguments which support y, but are also appealing to deontologists, virtue ethicists and the rest of us.

3. Don’t invent unnecessary terms
If we have a perfectly adequate term for something, such as infanticide inventing a new term for it is not actually adding to the literature, it is adding to the confusion, a good consequentialist seeks clarity not confusion.

4. Actually consider the consequences of claims you make
In particular ask yourself “are the resources I am suggesting being used here proportional to the likely utility gain? Could they be spent on something better?” Before proposing for example that we freeze all the sperm of 18 year olds in the UK to slightly reduce the incidence of certain diseases, it might be worth thinking for a second whether that money could be better used to prevent or treat existing illness… In other words, conduct a decent cost/benefit analysis before making a suggestion.

5. Work on worthwhile things
Finally it is worth doing a higher order analysis of what you spend your time on to ensure that you yourself are maximising the utility of your own actions. It follows straightforwardly that A consequentialist should think about topics that have the greater potential impact on utility. For example it is unlikely that devoting your time to defending the permissibility of a future technology that may or may not be realised is the most utility optimal thing you can do.

 

*this is written while I sun myself by lake Geneva, courtsey of the Brocher Foundation, who do not in anyway endorse the views expressed in this post, but it is probably the most utility maximal activity I can do…

 

EDITED to correct the claim that Angus Dawson is a consequentialist. He isn’t, he is complicated.

 

  • “Take for example John Harris’ great piece on the purported duty to volunteer for research – its so hard to argue against because Harris is very careful about his claims.”

    You’re not my friend any more.

    • David Hunter

      You know I was going to add (but Iain does it so well) but I cut it in the final draft.

      I agree with you he is wrong, but because he is so careful teasing out why he is wrong is much harder than it looks on the face of it.

  • Angus Dawson

    David – I was a bit surprised by this. I’m certainly a lot more sympathetic to consequentialism than many, but I don’t think I’ve ever committed myself to being one. I’ve tried to stay as neutral as i possibly can in relation to normative theories. I am more frequently dismissed as a communitarian. Again I’m sympathetic to some forms but don’t like the label. I’m not sure anyone would want to place me in the same list as John and Peter, both great philosophers and lovely people, but with completely different approaches to bioethics.

    • David Hunter

      Right I shall edit then, your general sympathy towards the approach fooled me into thinking you were a very complex consequentialist of some stripe. But as I tend to box myself as “confused with vague leanings towards various accounts (someday I will write up Hunterian Ethics…)” I’ll clarify your position in the post.

  • ‘it is unlikely that devoting your time to defending the permissibility of a future technology that may or may not be realised is the most utility optimal thing you can do.’

    I think this moves a bit too quickly. Given that the expected utility of a putative technology is a function of both the probability of its being realised and the value of its being realised (or not realised), if the value of having the tech (or not) is sufficiently large/weighty then it may not matter if it is really unlikely to ever come about. See Bostrom for more on this sort of thing:

    http://www.nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html