From the Director's Desk: A Message from Dr. Roberto Dell'Oro
Greetings to all our readers, as we steadily move into the middle of the fall semester, here at the Bioethics Institute. All our courses are in full swing, and our new cohort of students is adapting very well to the requirements of both their classes, Introduction to Bioethics(BIOE 6000), and Foundations of Philosophical Ethics (BIOE 6700). Second year students are currently tackling Law and Bioethics (BIOE 6200) and Justice in Health Care(BIOE 6500). Gigi McMillan is, now, our full time Program Administrator, while continuing her doctoral studies in bioethics at Loyola Chicago, and supervising the work of our graduate assistants, Jared Howes, Cara Crew, and Mia Loucks.
Together with our classes, students, and staff, it gives me great pleasure to introduce, once more, our faculty for the semester. In addition to Dr. Nick Brown, who is teaching an elective on Justice and Health Care, we are especially excited to have Dr. Cunningham for Introduction to Bioethics and Dr. Gumer for Law and Bioethics. You find their bios on this webpage under our Faculty link. I will only add the following: both Dr. Gumer and Dr. Cunningham bring to the Institute a wealth of expertise, and a deep commitment to the field of bioethics, each in their respective discipline. It might be good to briefly comment on the importance of such plurality of perspectives, which is central to the academic articulation of bioethics, and, ultimately, grounds the vision for our bioethics graduate program.
The canonical definition of bioethics as a field of study, now almost fifty years old, is provided by Warren Reich in his Encyclopedia of Bioethics(2nded.). It is a well-known definition: “Bioethics is a composite term derived from the Greek word bios(life) and ethike(ethics). It can be defined as the systematic study of the moral dimensions – including moral vision, decisions, conduct, and policies – of the life sciences and health care, employing a variety of ethical methodologies in an interdisciplinary setting.” Central to this definition are two notions, concerning, respectively, the content and method of bioethics. The former points to the scientific and technological advances in the life sciences and health care, with the host of new ethical problems they have triggered. When it comes to content, bioethics covers a broad, and, perhaps, rather indeterminate spectrum of issues. Thus, one can easily see the fallacy of reducing bioethics to “clinical bioethics,” which concerns the ethics of bedside decision making. Together with clinical questions, bioethics deals with the ethics of scientific research in various areas, from biology to genetics, to the application of nanotechnologies, not to mention questions triggered by our renewed environmental sensibility. Lately, even the notion of global bioethicshas found its place into the language game of bioethics. (For reflections on the topic of global bioethics, see upcoming posts in our Hub.)
As the definition suggests, bioethical questions must be entertained “with a variety of ethical methodologies.” This means that it is important to make room for alldisciplines that are potentially impacted by them. Moreover, it is essential for the field of bioethics to become especially hospitable to systematic reflections of method and theory, such as the ones provided by philosophy and theology. In this perspective, bioethics represents a test case, perhaps one of the most powerful and impressive in the academic development of the last fifty years, of dialogue among disciplines. The method of bioethics will subsequently depend from the definition of its content. I am inclined to think that, when it comes to the particular understanding of bioethics, one has to make a choice between two rather different paths: one leads toward an increasing professionalization; the other remains more faithful to the scholarly character of bioethics as public discourse.
It is widely recognized by leading scholars that the concern for a professionalization of the bioethical field and for its practical impact, both in the clinic and the public arenas, has led to a reduction in the understanding of bioethics as a scholarly dialogue among integral disciplines. For sure bioethics is expected to have a powerful impact in the practical arena. What is questionable, however, is the reduction of bioethical discourse to a reflection that is essentially parasitical to the demands of praxis, whether in the clinical or public policy realm. The issue here is certainly complex and deserves a more careful analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the consequences of the reduction in question is to turn bioethics into a set of skills for a bioethics expert, whose depth of knowledge is now measured, rather pragmatically, by his/her ability to function in the practical realm. I believe such understanding of bioethics is not faithful to the original intentions and to the ultimate goals of the field as a public space of scholarlydiscourse, where philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, clinicians, and scientists try to talk to one another, making sense of their different languages, and working together in an interdisciplinary fashion. At the Institute, we stand by an understanding of bioethics that sees it as an intellectual field of inquiry, indeed one of the most exciting for all disciplines involved, where the ultimate questions emerge in all their challenging ambiguity.
Does this entail an in-principle undermining of the clinical focus? Not at all, which is why we are blessed to expand our faculty with affiliates who are working in the clinical context. In addition to Dr. Cunningham, Dr. Theresa Drought and Dr. Joseph Raho are clinical bioethicists at local medical institutions, and provide our students with an understanding of bioethical problems that has been tested by the demands of praxis. We are also working on a proposal for a clinical ethics workshop in spring 2019. But on this, more to come in the months ahead.
I will conclude this fall edition of “From the Director’s Desk,” with a brief retrospective look at the work of our O’Malley Chair in spring 2018. We were fortunate to have a leading expert in cognitive psychology and neuroethics, Dr. Jim Giordano, from Georgetown University. Like his predecessor in 2017, during his time at LMU, Dr. Giordano shared in the life of the Institute, meeting regularly with interested faculty and students. In addition to teaching a graduate class, titled “Neuroethics: Issues at the Intersection of Brain Science and Society,” Dr. Giordano offered a host of activities, which was quite extraordinary for both quality and quantity: class visits, luncheon talks, public lectures, and a number of publications produced with the acknowledgment of the O’Malley Chair. We are most grateful for Dr. Giordano’s extraordinary presence, and admired his energetic enthusiasm, which lasted even beyond the time frame of his presence. It benefitted, in particular, one of our graduate students, Dan Ta, who was invited by Dr. Giordano to do focused research on neuro-technology. The experience, which included time spent at Georgetown University, and participation to a neuro-tech conference in New York, has produced, as a result, a paper on the ethics of so called “transcranial direct brain stimulation.”
We can only hope for a similarly productive visit by the O’Malley scholar in fall 2019.
Roberto Dell’Oro (email@example.com)