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Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

4 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Something popped up on my twitter feed the other day: this document from Oxford’s philosophy department.  (I’m not sure quite what it is.  Brochure?  In-house magazine?  Dunno.  It doesn’t really matter, though.)  In it, there’s a striking passage from Jeff McMahan’s piece on practical ethics:

Even though what is variously referred to as ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ is now universally recognized as a legitimate area of philosophy, it is still regarded by some philosophers as a ghetto within the broader 
area of moral philosophy.  This view is in one way warranted, as there is much work in such sub-domains of practical ethics as bioethics and business ethics that is done by writers whose expertise is in medicine, health policy, business, or some area other than moral philosophy, and whose standards of rigour in moral argument
are deplorably low.  These writers also tend
 to have only a superficial understanding of normative ethics.  Yet reasoning in practical ethics cannot be competently done without sustained engagement with theoretical issues
in normative ethics.  Indeed, Derek Parfit believes that normative and practical ethics are so closely interconnected that it is potentially misleading even to distinguish between them.  In his view, the only significant distinction is between ethics and metaethics, and even that distinction is not sharp.  [emphasis mine]

It’s a common complaint among medical ethicists who come from a philosophical background that non-philosophers are (a) not as good at philosophy, (b) doing medical ethics wrong, (c) taking over.  All right: there’s an element of hyperbole in my description of that complaint, but the general picture is probably recognisable.  And I don’t doubt that there’ll be philosophers grumbling along those lines at the IAB in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be among them.

There’s a lot going on in McMahan’s piece, and his basic claim is, I suppose, open to a claim that, being a philosopher, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  But even if that claim is warranted, it doesn’t follow that it’s false.  And it probably isn’t false.  There is some very low-quality argument throughout bioethics (and, from what I remember from my time teaching it, business ethics) – more particularly, in the medical ethics branch of bioethics, and more particularly still, in the clinical ethics sub-branch.  Obviously, I’m not going to pick out any examples here, but many of us could point to papers that have been simply not very good, because the standard of philosophy was low, without too much difficulty.  Often, these are papers we’ve peer-reviewed, and that haven’t seen the light of day.  But sometimes they do get published, and sometimes they get given at conferences.  I’ve known people who make a point of trying to find the worst papers on offer at a given conference, just for the devilry.

It doesn’t take too much work to come up with the common problems: a tendency to leap to normative conclusions based on the findings of surveys, or empirical or sociological work; value-laden language allowing conclusions to be smuggled into the premises of arguments; appeals to vague and – at best – contentious terms like dignity or professionalism; appeals to nostrums about informed consent; cultural difference used as an ill-fitting mask for special pleading; moral theories being chosen according to whether they generate the desired conclusion; and so on.  Within our field, my guess is that appeals to professional or legal guidelines as the solutions to moral problems is a common fallacy.  Not so long ago, Julian noted that

[t]he moralists appear to be winning.  They slavishly appeal to codes, such as the Declaration of Helsinki.  Such documents are useful and represent the distillation of the views of reasonable people.  Still, they do not represent the final word and in many cases are philosophically naïve.

Bluntly: yes, the WMA or the BMA or the law or whatever might say that you ought to do x; and that gives a reason to to x inasmuch as that one has a reason to obey the law and so on.  But it’s unlikely that it’s a sufficient reason; it remains open to us always to ask what those institutions should say.  Suppose they changed their minds and insisted tomorrow that we should do the opposite of x: would we just shrug and get on with the business of undoing what we did today?

And yet…  The complaint about poor argument is not straightforward, for a couple of reasons. more…

Circumcision and Sexual Function: Bad Science Reporting Misleads Parents

22 Apr, 16 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)


Another day, another round of uncritical media coverage of an empirical study about circumcision and sexual function. That’s including from the New York Times, whose Nicholas Bakalar has more or less recycled the content of a university press release without incorporating any skeptical analysis from other scientists. That’s par for the course for Bakalar.[1]

The new study is by Jennifer Bossio and her colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada: it looked at penile sensitivity at various locations on the penis, comparing a sample of men who had been circumcised when they were infants (meaning they had their foreskins surgically removed), with a sample of men who remained genitally intact (meaning they kept their foreskins into adulthood).[2]

What did the researchers discover? According to a typical headline from the past few days:

Circumcision does not reduce penis sensitivity.”

But that’s not what the study showed. Before we get into the details of the science, and looking just at this claim from the “headline” conclusion, it might be helpful to review some basic anatomy.


The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

16 Feb, 16 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see


Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.


Stop What You’re Doing: This is Important.

14 Oct, 15 | by Iain Brassington

I’d not realised it, but the latest iteration of the erstwhile Medical Innovation Bill – colloquially known as the Saatchi Bill – is up for debate in the Commons on Friday.  This is it in its latest form: to all intents and purposes, though, it’s the same thing about which I’ve blogged before.

In a nutshell, the Bill does nothing except remove protections from patients who would (under the current law) be able to sue for negligence in the event that their doctor’s “innovative” treatment is ill-founded.

Much more articulate summaries of what’s wrong with the Bill can be found here and here, with academic commentary here (mirrored here on SSRN for those without insitutional access).  There have been amendments to the Bill that make the version to be discussed on Friday slightly different from that analysed – but they are only cosmetic; the important parts remain.

Ranged against the Bill are the Medical professional bodies, the personal injuries profession, patient bodies, and research charities.  In favour of the Bill are the Daily Telegraph, a few people in the Lords who should know better (Lord Woolf, Lady Butler-Sloss: this means you), and Commons MPs who – understandably – don’t want to be seen as the one who voted against the cure for cancer.

Gloriously, Christ Heaton-Harris, who introduced the Bill, did so only after winning the ballot for Private Members’ Bills.  In a nutshell, he was allotted Parliamentary time, and then began the process of wondering what to do with it – which suggests that even the Bill’s sponsor doesn’t have a burning commitment to the cause – or, at least, didn’t when he took it on.

Still, the Bill has the support of Government; as it stands, there’s a good chance that it’ll pass.

SO: Take a few minutes to look up your MP’s email address – you can do that by following this link – and drop him/ her a line to encourage them to vote against the Bill.

Do it.

How to be a good (consequentialist) bioethicist…

6 Jul, 15 | by David Hunter

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.


On Being a Hypocrite

1 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

A piece appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago that aims to prick the perceived bubble of professional ethicists.  In fact, the headline is pretty hostile: THE HYPOCRISY OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICISTS.  Blimey.  The sub-headline doesn’t pull its punches either: “Even people who decide what’s right and wrong for a living don’t always behave well.”

I know that headlines are frequently not written by the person whose article they head, and so these won’t tell us much about the article – but, even so, I’m beginning to twitch.  Do I decide what’s right and wrong for a living?  I don’t think I do.  I possibly thought that that’s what an ethicist does when I was a fresher, or at school – but I’m not certain I did even then.  And even if I did, I discovered pretty quickly that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  For sure, I think about what’s right and wrong, and about what “right” and “wrong” mean; and I might even aspire to make the occasional discovery about right and wrong (or at least about how best to think about right and wrong).*  But as for deciding what is right and wrong?  Naaaah.

Anyway: to the substance of the piece, which – to be fair – is more moderate in tone, pointing out that “those who ponder big questions for a living don’t necessarily behave better, or think more clearly, than regular people do”.  That’s probably accurate enough, at least a good amount of the time.  I’d like to think that I’m thinking better about a particular problem than most people when I’m working on it; but I’m also thinking better about in that context than I would be at other times.  (Ask me about – say –  genetic privacy while I’m drafting a section of a paper on genetic privacy, and I’m your man.  Ask me while I’m making pastry… not so much.)  If we allow that I’m better at dealing with (a) specific moral question(s) while “on duty”, that won’t mean I’m not susceptible to the same intellectual shortcuts and fallacies as everyone else at least most of the rest of the time.  I’m probably almost as susceptible to them even when I am on duty.  I’d assume that the same applies to others in the profession, too.

The article does make great play of the apparent inconsistencies between what ethicists say and what they/ we do.  So there’s the finding about how many more say that eating meat is morally problematic than actually avoid it, and the chestnut about how ethics books are the ones most frequently stolen from libraries.**  At least there are decent sources cited – peer-reviewed papers like this one that are philosophically informed, to boot.

So: ethicists aren’t reliably better behaved than others.  I don’t think that should surprise us, though.  But, there’s a couple of questions into which we might still want to dig more deeply. more…

Questions to which the Answer is Yes

28 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Over at Practical Ethics, Charles Camosy asks a question: Can bioethics be done without theology?

Yep.  It can.

Well, that was quick and simple.

But – oh, all right: I probably ought to say a bit more.  Now, Camosy’s post is quite long, and that means that if I want to scrutinise it in any detail, I’d have to generate something at least as long.  I’m not sure if I – or any reader – has the patience for that, so what follows is probably not going to be without the odd gap.  All the same, this post has turned out to be something of a monster in its own right – so it might be worth going to make a cup of tea first if you intend to read it.

The tl;dr version is that I think that Camosy’s argument is fallacious in several places.  And though I’m arguing from a position of godlessness, I think that the problems ought to be apparent to those who do have faith as well.  With that caveat issued, here we go… more…

Emmerich on Fitness to Practise

30 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Having asked out loud whether anyone could explain a couple of odd FtP decisions, I got this from Nathan Emmerich, offering sociological pop at an answer… 

Iain wondered if anyone could explain the morality that underlies a couple of recent Fitness to Practise decisions made by the GMC.  Well, more accurately he wondered if anyone could explain the “public perception” or “public confidence” aspect of the GMC’s Fitness to Practice guidelines.  Never one to shirk a challenge, I thought I would give it a go…

The first thing to note is that one has to change, or perhaps expand, the terms of the debate.  As a discipline applied philosophical bioethics tends to focus on “ethics”, “ethical reasoning” and codified rules over what I (and some others) would call “morality”.  For our present purposes the starkest way to express the idea is by appeal to the historical morality of the UK medical profession, which used to be based on the idea of the British gentleman of a certain class and standing (and, obviously, race and gender).

This morality was uncodified – it had no explicit ethics.  Indeed, more than this, it was held to be uncodifiable both in principle and as a matter of morality.  It was thought it would be wrong to codify gentlemanly (medical) morality as to do so would open the way to, first, individuals who merely followed rules rather than being the correct sort of persons or having the right character.  Second, it would lead to people who did not have the right character or standing attempting to second-guess the decisions of medical professionals or gentlemen.  Such a thing was, of course, intolerable.

There is no denying that there was a lot wrong with this ‘moral culture’, and a range of factors has been influential in the modification of medical morality from this historical position to the one we have today.  However, “medical morality” has vanished completely, indeed, it is impossible for it to do so: the medical profession (indeed any profession or cultural group) has some underlying moral ethos.  Some cultures, like modern medicine, may also have explicitly stated ethical codes and guidelines that may be more or less in line with the underlying moral culture.  Nevertheless the moral culture itself is not obviated by these codes.  Indeed it underpins the existence and application of any such formally stated ethics.

The problem here is that no rule contains the principles of for its own application.   more…

Say twenty hail Autonomy’s and reflect on what you have done – bioethicists as having some, but not priestly authority.

17 May, 13 | by David Hunter

Nathan Emmerich, occasional commentator here at the JME blog has recently published an interesting piece in the Guardian which argues against us taking bioethicists as having a particular type of expertise. While I enjoyed and agree with much of what he argues I do have a couple of quibbles – in particular I worry that the emphasis on inclusiveness and democracy could in effect lead to the exclusion of the bioethicist, which I think would be a mistake.

The type of expertise he argues against bioethicists having is basically what I will refer to as authoritative expertise – someone who has authoritative expertise in a particular field ought to be deferred to when there is a disagreement – their opinion is “better” than ours as lay decision makers. So for example when deciding how long an object is, and whether it will fit in the boot of our car, we ought to defer to the chap with the tape measure, since their measured judgement is better than ours.

I use this example for a reason – Emmerich focuses on knowledge based expertise (no doubt because it is easier to explain to the lay public…) but this isn’t the only form of expertise that warrants some deference there is also expertise which is performative (in this case the act of measuring well). I’m inclined to think that if bioethicists deserve any deference it will be due to their performative expertise, rather than their knowledge.

Emmerich suggests however that bioethicists should not be taken as having authoratative expertise because he thinks knowledge about morality is more like knowledge about aesthetics than knowledge about facts. Hence we ought to give no more weight to the bioethicists opinion about an ethical issue, than we do someone heavily steeped in the Art’s worlds opinion about a piece of modern art – they have a “sophisticated” view but that doesn’t tell me what I should think about the piece.

He thinks bioethicists should conceive of themselves as thinking alongside, working with people to work out what to do rather than telling them what to do. He argues that commenting on the biosciences is particularly dangerous for bioethicists because it is different from medical practice in that its practice isn’t inherently involving ethical decisions – hence he claims bioethicists are tempted to make pronouncements and decide about ethical issues in the biosciences rather than work with bioscientists. As an aside I think this is exactly wrong – I doubt the empirical claim is true (ie that bioethicists proclaim and make decisions more about issues in bioscience than medicine) and I think the process of conducting bioscience does involve constant ongoing ethical decision making – it’s just a different sort of decision making, about the responsible conduct of science and dissemination rather than the treatment of patients. Nonetheless lets leave that aside.

So far so good – I don’t think bioethicists ought to be taken as overwhelmingly authoritative – the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had sitting on an ethics committee was when the committee treated me as a moral expert and simply deferred to my opinion in each case – it took awhile to break them of that. But I disagree with Emmerich about why this is the case. This is in part because I object to the metaethics he is assuming – the reason we find the expert in Art uncompelling is that the general opinion is that there is no truth of the matter when it comes to aesthetic judgements. And presumably Emmerich thinks the same about morality.

I broadly take the same view as Hobbes does here:

Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. Chapter V.

Of Reason and Science
And, as in arithmetic, unpractised men must, and professors themselves may often, err, and cast up false; so also in any other subject of reasoning the ablest, most attentive, and most practised men may deceive themselves, and infer false conclusions; not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art; but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty; no more than an account is therefore well cast up, because a great many men have unanimously approved it. And therefore, as when there is a controversy in an account the parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will both stand, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature; so is it also in all debates of what kind soever. And when men that think themselves wiser than all others clamour and demand right reason for judge, yet seek no more but that things should be determined by no other men’s reason but their own, it is as intolerable in the society of men as it is in play after trump is turned, to use for trump on every occasion that suit whereof they have most in their hand. For they do nothing else that will have every of their passions, as it comes to bear sway in them, to be taken for right reason, and that in their own controversies, bewraying their want of right reason, by the claim they lay to it.

The point here is that when there is moral disagreement claiming to have the right judgement – the right reason – is like cheating at cards by claiming whenever it is your turn that the trump suit is whichever suit you have the most of in your hand. In other words the dispute is about which reason is right, hence simply saying “mine” does nothing to resolve this. But this view of morality is a bit more complex – I’m inclined to think there is a truth of the matter, it just isn’t easy to access, nor is it easy to show to others. Hobbes solution to the problem of irresolvable disputes is to establish an absolute sovereign who we both agree to defer to, and then we go with whatever they say. I roughly think that is right, with the conditional (that I suspect Hobbes would agree with) that we try to ensure that our absolute sovereign comes out with an answer that is as close to being right as possible. And given the complexity and the difficulty of divining moral truths that deliberation, debate and argument has a better chance of getting the “right” answer than having someone sit by themselves in a room and ponder it.

I think the bioethicist is in a position to contribute something useful to such deliberation, debate and discussion in two ways, both of which require some expertise – even if it is not totally authorative expertise. The first way is this, the bioethicist I assume will have access to more knowledge both about what has been argued in regards to ethical theory and in regards to moves in applied ethics. Knowing these moves can short-cut some discussion and debate by showing paths that will lead nowhere – the implications and consequences of particular arguments. This I think is as useful an input as that of someone who – trained in an empirical discipline – contributes their knowledge of their discipline and its findings to the debate about a particular issue. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a bioethicist ought I think to have a certain sort of performative expertise. This is an expertise at argument and debate, at critical thinking, questioning assumptions and being aware just how arguments go wrong, in effect this is philosophical expertise.* Is this authoritative? I think at best only partially – largely it gives the bioethicist the authority to suggest that particular lines of pursuit won’t be fruitful. In any case I think philosophical reasoning is inherently democraticising – because of its origins and use in debate and discussion it ought to aim to up skill and inform everyone in the discussion, rather than claim special status – to go back to my man with a measuring tape analogy the good bioethicist tries to provide everyone in the discussion of whether object x will fit in the car boot with a tape measure for themselves.

There is a more general line of argument which can be drawn from Emmerich’s argument against expertise in regards to bioethicists which is an argument against involving “experts” in making bioethical decisions – in effect Emmerich implies that these being decisions by experts, even committees of multiple types of experts is anti-democratic – because it involves having others making moral decisions for “us” when that is actually our responsibility. Now of course a good bioethicist would question the assumption that being anti-democratic is bad, but I’m going instead to suggest that having others decide for you can be, and in this case is, perfectly democratic. Direct democracy is well known to have certain limitations, not the least that the electorate often wants contradictory things for example that given the option people will opt for lower taxes and higher social spending… I suspect that bioethical issues are an area where direct democracy will be unsatisfying – either because of intractable disagreements within the population (think abortion) or because the technical nature of the decision means that predictably decisions will be made that lead to outcomes that few in the population would endorse. In these cases it would seem sensible to agree to establish a group of decision makers (in Hobbesian terms a sovereign) to delegate this decision to. We do this in regards to most political decisions and hence it seems that establishing a public decision making body such as the HFEA can be a perfectly democratic response, as long as it is established in the right way (in this case in a process where it occurs as a result of legislation passed by a duly elected government). Such a body may not have the moral authority of the expertise of knowing the right answer but they are our best bet at getting somewhere close to it, and hence we ought to accept their decision making. Of course Emmerich is right to think that this needs to be a public facing process which should take into consideration public opinion and input from individual members of the public, but these should be taken as no more authoritative than individual expert’s opinions. Otherwise we are in effect allowing the public (or more accurately a tiny unrepresentative vocal bit of the public) claim “right reason”, when this isn’t warranted.

Emmerich identifies a real temptation and danger for bioethicists, it is tempting to act as moral authorities, and broadly speaking illegitimate to do so. But there are dangers in the other direction as well which we need to be wary of as well I’m inclined to think direct democracy worship is no better than the autonomy worship than many current bioethicists practice.

* I am in this piece using a less than inclusive definition of bioethicist – meaning someone who has at least some training in thinking philosophically about ethical issues – this doesn’t have to be formal education of course,and could be self taught,  but the argument I am making depends on bioethicists as having this – those who work simply empirically on issues in bioethics but have no normative engagement (if such a person actually exists) would at least by the standards of this piece not count as a bioethicist. Sorry.

Is the NIMH Turning its Back on DSM-V?

9 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Thanks to Brian Earp for bringing this release from the US’ National Institute of Mental Health to my attention; it concerns the Institute’s decision to move away from DSM as its diagnostic tool.  DSM has been enormously successful – in terms of having established itself at the centre of psychiatry – but it has been enormously controversial, as well; the NIMH moving away from it is very big news indeed.  Whether the new model that they’re going to be working on will be any better, of course, remains to be seen.

The important bit seems to be this:

NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories. Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system.

One or two things about the statement leap out at me. more…

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