Bioethics Today

Article excerpt

There can be no doubt that the public face of contemporary philosophy is the professional who goes by the name of "bioethicist." Since the bioethics industry - which is what it is - sprang up in the 1970s, large numbers of professional philosophers have found it a congenial and remunerative way in which to make a reputation for themselves.

A few general observations can be made about bioethicists. Some of them are well-meaning. For example, they are dedicated to the laudable notion that philosophy should be heard in the public square and have an influence on the making of policy. Or they believe, rightly, that me bioethical problems of our day are of such grave moment that philosophers should try to grapple with mem, at least, and provide solutions if possible. It is not only mat the welfare of society depends on such solutions, but that if philosophers, who are supposed to be trained in rigorous thinking, do not do the hard conceptual work mat needs to be done, the void will be filled by the looser and fuzzier moral thinking of others - especially lawyers, politicians, and economists. Some are simply committed to the idea, again admirable, mat bioethics is a serious intellectual discipline that demands equally serious analytical application. Some find bioethics just interesting and worthy of philosophical pursuit in its own right. Again, this is true.

On the other hand, it is all too evident that very many, perhaps the majority, of bioethicists are, to put it frankly, less than competent. I believe mat this is a view a good number of philosophers share. The bioethics industry is, unfortunately, populated by many individuals whom one might even call second-rate philosophers. They have found themselves unable to grapple with the more technical or abstract areas of philosophy - or at least to make a name for themselves in such areas - but have found that it is relatively easy to forge a name for oneself in the bioethics business. For one, mere is an insatiable demand by the media for comment upon the latest developments in biotechnology, medicine, genetics, and so on, or for comment upon someone else's comment upon such developments. There are committees to sit on - in universities, hospitals, mink tanks, and in government. There are position papers to write, opinions to be sought. And mere is always something new around the corner, so there is always something to write about or comment on: the latest drug, the newest ethical dilemma, the most recent discovery - or "discovery." There is, due to the advance of science, a guaranteed, inexhaustible supply of topics. So as a bioethicist on the make, you will find it easy, or at least easier than in the more abstruse areas of philosophy, to latch onto the latest hot issue and find that, lo and behold, no one else has yet had time to reflect and express an opinion. You can then jump in with both feet and start a whole literature on the subject, or a whole new media storm, or find yourself on the lecture circuit or in the radio studio, ready to convey your own "discoveries" to a naturally eager and sensationhungry public. Or you can find yourself a niche in public policy, proposing legislative reform, working on committees, or whatnot. This is all very appealing to an academic looking to make a reputation for himself.

In fact it is worse than this. For the best way of getting yourself heard as a bioethicist is not merely by saying something new about an old topic, or taking the lead in breaking open a new one, but by saying something radical or shocking. The more you excite the public imagination, the more debate there will be and the more people will want to hear you, simply so they can express their disagreement or at least for the shock value. And the more shocking you are, the better it seems to be for your career. Bioethicists appear to crawl over one another to outrage public sensibility with the creepiest ideas they can come up with. You might recall the furore over Peter Singer's advocacy of bestiality a few years ago in a review of a book by one Midas Dekkers on the subject. …