RS#33: New Dilemmas in Bioethics

During the taping of Rationally Speaking episode #33, at NECSS 2011. (Photo credit: Brian Gregory)

Episode #33 of the Rationally Speaking podcast is out: “New Dilemmas in Bioethics.”  This is the one Massimo and I recorded live at the 2011 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. We discuss bioethics with two special guests: Jacob Appel, doctor, author, lawyer and bioethicist; and Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and historian of science. Topics covered included: Should parents be allowed to select the gender and sexual orientation of their babies? Should pharmacists and physicians be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that violate their own religious or ethical principles? And when is assisted suicide acceptable?

One of the interesting things about this episode was the strikingly different approaches Jacob and Jennifer used when considering bioethical issues — Jacob clearly has pretty utilitarian inclinations, so the guiding principle behind his answers was “What would the expected positive and negative effects of this policy be?” He also has a relatively libertarian approach to bioethical policy, which I think grows naturally out of his utilitarianism — in general, allowing people the freedom to make their own choices will maximize utility (though of course you can find plenty of exceptions; I don’t mean to imply that Jacob’s worldview is that absolute).

Jennifer, meanwhile, had a much more deontological (rule-based) approach to ethics: she appears to judge some things as wrong not necessarily because they reduce overall utility, but because they’re inherently distasteful or because they violate a principle that she holds sacrosanct. (I’m interpreting their respective views, of course, so let me add the disclaimer that I can’t guarantee they’d agree with these characterizations).

I suspect most people are closer to Jennifer’s worldview, but Jacob’s is much more aligned with mine.

6 Responses to RS#33: New Dilemmas in Bioethics

  1. Max says:

    Utilitarianism says that the ends justify the means?

  2. Max says:

    I don’t see how a libertarian approach would maximize utility.
    If most couples decide to have a boy, this would increase the male/female ratio, which probably wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s pretty much what happened in China, where the one-child policy made couples abort girls, making China’s children’s male/female ratio of 1.13 two spots short of the highest in the world.

    And are we more worried about the welfare of a few overpaid pharmacists or about their many patients? Pharmacists who aren’t doing their jobs should have their license revoked. If they want to keep earning six-figure salaries for filling orders, they’ll get with the program.

    I’d expect that acceptance of assisted suicide would increase the number of sickos like George Exoo and his wife, who exploit depressed people for the money and the thrill.

    • Max says:

      I got the 1.13 boy/girl ratio from Nationmaster for 2008.
      The CIA Factbook says the latest ratio is 1.17, which is the highest in the world. Here’s what is says about the consequences:
      “Sex ratio at birth has recently emerged as an indicator of certain kinds of sex discrimination in some countries. For instance, high sex ratios at birth in some Asian countries are now attributed to sex-selective abortion and infanticide due to a strong preference for sons. This will affect future marriage patterns and fertility patterns. Eventually, it could cause unrest among young adult males who are unable to find partners.”

      Eugenics in general may reduce the number of great scientists and artists, because a lot of them are weird, and parents don’t want their children to be weird.

  3. Cory Albrecht says:

    @Max: <blockquiote<Utilitarianism says that the ends justify the means?
    That’s what I thought, too, what utilitarianism meant, when I first heard it. Julia linked a few posts back to a good explanation of it: utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism. If I understand it correctly, the name is a bit misleading if you go by colloquial use, utilitarianism is simply that you act in a way that will maximize “utility” or the greatest common good. What one considers to be “good”, of course, rests on what ones values are. To me, utilitarianism would be the “how” and your values would be th “why”.

    What I don’t understand is how this differs from altruism except in a strict, technical definition, as the outcomes I imagine look pretty much the same.

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