Toleration and method in bioethics

By David Hunter

It has been argued by some that bioethicists and in particular philosophers must be tolerant of the variety of different methods that might be employed in trying to answer the questions focused on by medical ethics/bioethics. Thus it is claimed we ought to accept as equally valid to classic philosophical analysis; empirical work, psychological work, social science, discourse analysis, hermeneutics, and so on. I think there is something right about this, but I am skeptical about uncritically couching this in terms of tolerance for two reasons.

Firstly tolerance has a disrespectful ring to it, I tolerate the drunk talking to me on the bus, but I hardly take him or his views seriously. If we tolerate colleagues in this fashion then we will be effectively just waiting quietly and politely for them to shut up so we can get back to the important stuff.

Secondly tolerance also sounds in someways too respectful, while I might whisper comments about him to the person speaking next to me about the drunk I don’t engage him in reasoned discussion about what he is doing. Likewise on many accounts of cultural tolerance it would be the height of rudeness to interfere with a cultural practice and to try and argue someone out of it. In other words we do positions and people a disservice when we don’t express critical comments but instead bite I our tongues out of “respect”.

Instead I think we ought to encourage members of our discipline to be respectful and open minded. We should explore different ways of doing things, different concepts of how to resolve problems or indeed to conceptualize the problems in the first place. But this respect entails not “tolerating” different methods but challenging them rigorously, testing their assumptions and usefulness. Just like cultures or indeed ethics or ways of life, methodologies are organic, they grow and change when fertilized with dispute, disagreement and debate. As such questioning the usefulness and appropriateness of a particular method is not the height of rudeness, but instead a helpful contribution.

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