Is it time for bioethics to go empirical?

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    Abstract

    Observers who note the increasing popularity of bioethics discussions often complain that the social sciences are poorly represented in discussions about things like abortion and stem-cell research. Critics say that bioethicists should be incorporating the methods and findings of social scientists, and should move towards making the discipline more empirically oriented. This way, critics argue, bioethics will remain relevant, and truly reflect the needs of actual people. Such recommendations ignore the diversity of viewpoints in bioethics, however. Bioethics can gain much from the methods and findings from ethnographies and similar research. But it is misleading to suggest that bioethicists are unaware of this potential benefit. Not only that, bioethicists are justified in having doubts about the utility of the social science approach in some cases. This is not because there is some inherent superiority in non-empirical approaches to moral argument. Rather, the doubts concern the nature of the facts that the sciences would provide. Perhaps the larger point is that disagreements about the relationship between facts and normative arguments should be seen as part of the normal inquiry in bioethics, not evidence that reform is needed.

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    Keywords

    • Applied ethics
    • Methodology
    • Principlism
    • Social science

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