April 12, 2024

It’s time to abolish morality in bioethics, say bioethicists

The idea that morality ought to be abolished is not limited to invading armies (pick one) or child abusers or internet scammers. Some philosophers have taken up the cause of ridding mankind of the curse of morality. It is, they believe, a cause of intolerance, oppression, and misery in the world. They are called “moral abolitionists”. 

What if this were applied to bioethics? In an early online article in the journal Bioethics, Parker Crutchfield, of Western Michigan University, and Scott Scheall, of Arizona State University, contend that “Moral obligation attributions should be abolished from the practice of biomedical ethics.”

Grasping their argument involves a lot of heavy lifting for non-philosophers, so BioEdge will just give a few highlights. It’s an intriguing and potentially revolutionary argument which would put many bioethicists on the street if it were taken seriously. 

First of all, bioethicists are committed to saying “accurate things”. But how can they speak accurately about moral obligations? Everyone labours under an “epistemic burden” – the difficulty of understanding all the factors which contribute to a moral decision. A bioethicist cannot remove this epistemic burden from the people he is advising. 

Thus, given “the logical priority of the epistemic, biomedical ethicists are unlikely to deliberately make accurate obligation attributions. Typically, such attributions will only be accurate by luck. Thus, the practice of attributing moral obligations to subjects whose ignorance we are ignorant of should be abolished. This leaves the ethicist to only illuminate the relevant reasons and evidence and help subjects weigh and balance these. It is impractical for the ethicist to attribute moral obligations. On this basis, they should not do so.” 

Reading this article must be very disheartening for anyone considering a career in bioethics. The authors state:

Thus, moral obligation attributions in biomedical ethics are typically inaccurate or accurate only by accident. Thus, if we insist on maintaining the widespread use of moral obligation attributions in the practice of biomedical ethics, we may be better off flipping a coin and calling it in the air.

What, they might ask, is the point of taking up a career in bioethics when reading Tarot cards would probably be more rewarding socially and financially?