May 30, 2024

Interview: Dan Robinson on bioethics and utilitarianism

Recently we interviewed Professor Daniel N. Robinson about his views on the foundations of bioethics.

Dan Robinson — distinguished professor emeritus at Georgetown University and a fellow of the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford — is a creative an insightful thinker. He has written widely on philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology, in addition to his work in philosophy of law and bioethics. Robinson is perhaps best known as a witty and engaging lecturer, and has produced a number of highly successful recorded lecture series on the history of philosophy and psychology. Professor Robinson doesn’t pull punches when critiquing the state of contemporary bioethics, which he sees as languishing under the weight of a number of fundamental conceptual confusions. He is an outspoken critic of the preference utilitarianism of Peter Singer. We recently interviewed him about his views on the foundations of bioethics. 


Xavier Symons: You have done a lot of work on scientific reductionism. Do you think scientific reductionism has influenced the way bioethics is done today?

Dan Robinson: Influence is often indirect, somewhat ‘atmospheric’. Reductionism tends to confer a mechanistic property on features of life long understood in humanistic terms; terms that carry with them respect and regard and even a familial sense of relatedness. Reductionism as a species of ideology is stridently skeptical about what reductionism fails to explain.

XS: What do you think accounts for the popularity of utilitarian bioethics?

DR: Chiefly misunderstanding. The utilitarian “calculus” tends to be useless when applied to a here-and-now but on the basis of what will thereupon be brought about there-and-then. Truman’s advisors were right in telling him that more death and destruction would attend a ground war in japan than in using two atomic bombs. They got the right “calculation”, but one that excluded what turned out to be a nuclear arms race that has yet to reach critical mass. So, even if your moral compass does no more than give sums regarding future and dubiously quantified “happiness” or “utility”, we are simply awful as oracles. 

XS: You have edited a book discussing the Roman Catholic perspective on human nature. What do you think utilitarian approaches to bioethics miss in terms of human nature?

DR: I think one can accommodate a utilitarian ethics within the framework of catholic teaching.  The ‘fit’ will be less than ideal, but, as i say, the two surely can co-exist.  Indeed, one might regard eternal life in heaven as the most desirable and greatest ‘happiness’, thereupon acceding to church teaching for that very utilitarian outcome.  The problem, of course, is that a quid-pro-quo moral life is not authentically moral in the first instance, for such a life would adopt any course of action promising the same payoff.

XS: Respect for autonomy is seen by many as the most important principle in bioethics. Do you agree?

DR: Autonomy is not a ‘principle’, it is a power.  murders are committed ‘autonomously, and banks are robbed as well. The question therefore is just what principle do we adopt and apply autonomously. Bioethicists have this ‘ipse dixit’ habit of regarding as ethically settled whatever 80% of them subscribe to. The problem begins — as is often the case — with the hyphen. If we have a defensible ethics, we do not need a bio-ethics, less a neuro-ethics.

XS: Communitarian bioethicists like Daniel Callahan emphasise the importance of considering the ‘common good’ in the evaluation of bioethical issues. Are you sympathetic to this approach?

DR: Ah, but  what ‘community’ stands ready and able to define what is ‘good’ for its membership?  What serves the common good for ISIS?  For the Mafia?  For the Nazis?  Daniel Callahan gets the thing backwards.  First, you must have a developed moral argument credibly productive of a standard of goodness.  Thus armed, you now can judge which ‘communities’ are worthy of respect and nurturance.

Interview with Daniel Robinson — the foundations of bioethics
Xavier Symons
Creative commons