Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bioethics without God

It is considered in bad taste to bring God into contemporary bioethics discussions. Why? Well, one reason is that if one does so, one's argument will be irrelevant to atheists and agnostics. But note that in the American public, the percentage of people who accept the existence of God is significantly greater than the percentage who are Kantians, or utilitarians, or virtue ethicists, etc. Thus, say, an argument in favor of cloning based mainly on the premise that God exists (I don't know of any such argument off-hand) will be relevant to a much greater percentage of people than an argument for the same conclusion based on Kantianism. Moreover, while among academics there are significantly more atheists and agnostics, it still may be that the claim that God exists is at least as widespread as a belief in Kantianism, or in utilitarianism, or in virtue ethics.

Another reason it's in bad taste is that it allegedly brings faith into what should be a reasoned discussion. But this presupposes that the existence of God cannot be argued for rationally, a claim that is false (clearly false if we use as our standard of rationality the level of compellingness of arguments in applied ethics). Now one might with greater plausibility claim that no argument for the existence of God will be compelling to all, or even to a majority, of intellectuals. But it is in perfectly good taste to give serious bioethics arguments based on premises that are not compelling to the majority of intellectuals. Thus, one can give Kantian, utilitarian or virtue ethics arguments.

A third, though very pragmatic (but so is the first), reason is contingencies involving legal issues about church and state in the U.S., and cultural hangups connected with this. For better or worse, it is likely that the Supreme Court would see a law grounded in the existence of God, even if the law included a preamble giving a very powerful rational argument for the existence of God, as violating the separation of church and state.

I have theistic friends whom I respect highly and who try very hard to avoid making use of the existence of God in their work in applied ethics. While I think such work is very important both intellectually and practically, I also think there is a danger of distortion in bioethics if one confines oneself to working in this way. When one does have to do non-theistic work in bioethics, one should think of it as a way of tying one hand behind one's back, because that's what the rules of the game call for, not because that's what is appropriate to the enterprise of truth-seeking. For when we are talking about appropriate treatment of the beginning and end of life, it is plausible that the question of the relation between life and God is highly relevant. Some people think that the way science can explain all kinds of facts without invoking God is an argument against the existence of God. That's a bad argument. But if ethics, especially the ethics that deals with the beginning and end of life, could do without God, that should be quite surprising to a theist.

In the above, I talked of mere theism. I have a strong suspicion that, at least in our fallen state, more than mere theism is relevant. John Paul II somewhere said that we can only understand man through Christ. If that's right, then non-Christian bioethics is doomed to incompleteness. And incompleteness in a philosophical enterprise runs the danger of leading to distortion, through onesidedness.


Dale said...

I would start by saying "taste" is beside the point. The issue is the quality of the arguments, and arguments grounded in the authority, qualities, priorities, purposes, etc. of supernatural entities are indeterminate because they are unverifiable.

Person X says Sunni Islam holds the key to these matters; person Y says that Roman Catholicism holds the key; person Z says that a particular sect of Hinduism holds the ultimate truth of the cosmos, without which bioethics (and much more) cannot hope even to get started. And so on -- the world is rife with One True Faiths.

Appeals to gods are appeals to authority. Some appeals to authority can work -- namely, the ones in which a) the authority is recognized as such by all parties and b) the authority in question can either be shown to have taken a clear position on the dispute or, that failing, actually step in and take a side.

As a matter of politics, it might be possible to cobble together a notion of a god whose vagueness appeals to enough parties to get to 50%+1, but this is a question of "the enterprise of truth-seeking," not of ekeing out a procedural victory (as you say).

You're right that this creates a challenge for the devout believer. Such a believer is bound to connect questions of bioethics to a due consideration of god's nature, purposes, priorities, etc.

To me, this challenge points up the shortcomings of grounding truth claims on supernatural entities.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. If verifiability is the standard, then no policy arguments can stand. For every policy argument makes an unverifiable normative claim. Consider for the instance the sketch of argument: "Fluoride in water improves the health of teeth, and has no negative side-effects. Therefore, we should fluoridize the water." The argument is missing, among other things, a crucial premise about the value of health. If health is not valuable, then conclusion is irrelevant. (Compare the formally identical: "Dye X in water improves the purpleness of teeth, and has no negative side-effects. Therefore we should add dye X to water.") Now the claim that health is valuable is not a verifiable claim.

Granted, the claim is disputed by no serious rational person. But the standard that public arguments must be based on premises disputed by no serious rational person is still much too high a standard--just about all interesting arguments fail to meet this standard.

2. Recognition of the authority by all parties is an unfairly high standard in arguments from authority. For instance, the argument that we should reduce carbon emissions because the most reputable scientists tell us that they contribute to global warming involves an appeal to an authority that not all parties recognize, namely these most reputable scientists.

3. In fact, intelligent adherents of Sunni Islam and Roman Catholicism (I don't know enough about Hinduism to see if I can include them) will have apologetic arguments for their authority claims.

Maybe you wouldn't be convinced by these arguments. I probably wouldn't be convinced by the Sunni arguments. But the same issue comes up in the case of arguments based on Kantianism, utilitarianism, principalism, etc. I am not convinced by the arguments for utilitarianism, and I am only slightly convinced by the arguments for Kantianism. You, likewise, are probably unconvinced by the arguments for utilitarianism or for Kantianism or both. But it is perfectly reasonable to give bioethics arguments based on Kantianism, just as it is perfectly reason to give ones based on utilitarianism. If every argument had to prove its major controversial premises, we would be in the silly position that if one published a utilitarian argument in bioethics, one would have to include a section at the beginning giving a sketch of the best arguments for utilitarianism. Presumably, every utilitarian bioethics paper would have roughly that same introduction, since there are only so many arguments for utilitarianism. This repetition is a waste of time and paper. One might as well just say: "Assume utilitarianism. If not convinced, refer, e.g., to the work of X, Y and Z." And the second sentence isn't even needed, since the competent scholarly reader knows the standard arguments for and against utilitarianism.

I do not see a significant difference in epistemic status between a bioethics paper beginning "Assume utilitarianism" and one starting "Assume Sunni Islam". Both papers are based on a false assumption for which, nonetheless, rational but in the end unconvincing arguments can be given.

Daniel Waweru said...


The guys doing social epistemology don't always, or usually, produce their refutation of skepticism before giving their theory of how many people can know the same thing. None of the (very little) bioethics I've read obviously takes a position regarding the true philosophy of material constitution. Which isn't to say that what the bioethicist or epistemologist is doing has no implications for the correct theory of material constitution or skepticism.

Couldn't it just be, then, that theistic minimalism (as Rescher calls it in Philosophical Reasoning) is justified in bioethics because, as in any other branch of philosophy, we ought to minimise our metaphysical commitments? And especially so when there is already a long-running dispute?

Alexander R Pruss said...

The minimalism points suggests a distinction.

When producing an argument for a particular conclusion, it is worth minimizing one's metaphysical commitments. However, when exploring a particular area of philosophy, we should bring to bear all apparently relevant knowledge. To minimize metaphysical commitment while in an exploratory mode is to risk distortion by failing to bring to bear relevant data.

Perhaps this is what, in private, my friends are doing. Maybe they are bringing to bear all the metaphysics they can when trying to figure out for themselves what is the case, and when trying to figure out the lay of the land. But then, once they've come to definite conclusions, they try to argue on metaphysically minimal grounds for them.

This minimization is worth doing, of course. It is much as in mathematics. Once one has proved that if (a), (b), (c) and (d) hold, then (e) holds, it's worth checking whether one can prove that if (a), (b) and (c) hold, then (e) holds. One needs to try to strengthen one's theorems as much as one reasonably can before publication.

At the same time, I think it would be rather surprising if it turned out that a theistic hypothesis was both (a) true, and yet (b) always eliminable from bioethical arguments. So one can strive to eliminate the theistic hypothesis, but it would be surprising if one could always do it. For, after all, one expects that the existence of God is deeply relevant for issues of life and death.

By the way, I think questions of material constitution are highly relevant to questions of personal identity, and these, in turn, to abortion.

Heath White said...

You probably know that you sound just like Plantinga (but he would make this general argument for philosophy generally, not just bioethics).

Dale said...

AP, I started another comment but decided to turn it into a post on my own blog (some consider that bad manners in blog-world, I realize, but there it is):

One smaller note, while I'm here:

Re: 2. Top climate scientists are deriving their conclusions from evidence and related analysis (i.e. the scientific method), not from authority. Those of us outside the field may, sooner or later, defer to their authority (or refuse to) on pragmatic or political grounds -- because life is too short to proceed otherwise. We will decidedly not defer to their authority as part of a quest for capital-T truth -- their authority is not the basis of the conclusions.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The best scientists are too busy doing science in order to be the policy makers. And the policy makers have to defer to the scientists' authority.

Now, substitute God for the scientist. Just as the scientist have evidence that is not available to the non-scientist, so God has evidence (if that's the right term) that is not available to us. If we have good reason to think that the scientist, or God, has indeed said p, and that he is reliable in this matter, we have good reason to believe p.

Is such reliance appropriate in the search for Truth? Certainly. The search for Truth requires bringing in evidence from a wide variety of disciplines: philosophy, physics, astronomy, history, etc. We cannot master all of these. We thus need to refer to authority.

Of course the authorities are not relying on authority in their own field. But that's beside the point for those of us who are not authorities, and indeed none of us are authorities on all the relevant fields.

Clark Goble said...

Isn't that wrong though? The whole point of science is that it isn't just available to the scientist. Yeah it may be hard to figure out. But "hard to understand" is a huge difference from our relation to God. The scientist will provide evidence upon demand. God doesn't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am afraid I am going to have sound very elitist here. I want to preface those remarks by noting that I do not think intelligence in the end matters all that much. What matters is wisdom, and what I say about intelligence does not apply to wisdom.

It is true that the scientific data is available to anybody who has sufficient intelligence and undergoes rigorous training.

But not everyone has sufficient intelligence. That's a sad fact.

First of all, only somewhat less than half of people has the IQ for success in college.

Moreover, I suspect that only a minority of college students is capable of mastering the mathematics behind most of the physical sciences. It is quite normal for the average grade in first year calculus classes to be about 65%, and while some of the low grades can be attributed to slacking or poor didactics, I think it is implausible to suppose that a majority of college students is capable of excelling in calculus, or probability theory, or statistics.

If so, then less than a quarter of the population has the mathematical abilities. Probably the number is as low as 5%.

But besides the mathematical abilities, there is probably a need for the additional special abilities needed for the branch of science.

So in fact the data is such that only a minority of people have any hope of being able to evaluate it, unless a miracle intervenes. Basically speaking, the data is only available to the scientists, and it is available to us non-scientists only if, in effect, we become scientists or pretty close to scientists (to evaluate the data, one needs the technical skills of scientists, but maybe not all the creative skills).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Besides, I don't see how it is epistemically relevant that I could in principle understand some piece of evidence, if I am relying on authority.

Compare two cases.

Dr. Smith is a human mathematician and she tells me that she has a proof of the Riemann Zeta Conjecture. I know that in principle if she has the proof, I should be able to understand it if I applied myself.

Dr. Jissxo is an alien mathematician, of intelligence vastly exceeding ours, and it tells me that it has a proof of Goldbach's conjecture, with the proof's complexity vastly exceeding human intellectual power, but with it being pretty simple to it.

Suppose I have equally good reason to believe Smith and Jissxo to be truthful, and suppose also that I know for sure that Jissxo's mathematical abilities are as far above mine as Riemann's were above a typical four-year-old's. Then I have good reason to believe both the RZC and the GC. The fact that Jixxso's proof of GC is one that I couldn't possibly grasp does not seem a significant difference. What does it matter epistemically that I could understand Smith's proof of RZC, if in fact I actually don't?

Nightvid said...

But you're forgetting the fact that even among believers, there are a gazillion different denominations which proves that not even those who think a god or gods exist(s) can agree on what he/she/it/they want(s). Then arguing from DCT is pointless.
And many believers would submit that the desires of this deity are unknowable. Even if atheism is false, any revelation claim is *far* more likely to be a hallucination that to be true.