Teaching Bioethics and Biopolitics in a crossdisciplinary Graduate Context

- Yaman Ors, MD DPhil
Department of Deontology, Ankara Medical Faculty
Syhhiye, 06100 Ankara, Turkey
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 166-9.

Introduction: an elective graduate course on Environmental Ethics

I think I must first make it clear that I am going to make this presentation not as a member of the teaching staff in my usual medical faculty setting, but rather as an academic who has been giving, for three years now, a graduate course in the Social Sciences Institute of our University. Then, however, one might justifiably ask, "in what academic capacity?". I am indeed teaching at the Social Sciences and the Environment Department of the Institute, although I am a professor of (Medical) Deontology and Medical History. But I do so not in my more or less formal academic status but as a philosopher and an academic involved in medical ethics and, by extension, bioethics. And this department is just one of a group of four interdisciplinary units of the Institute which have no corresponding ones in the related faculties of the University, evidently similar to what one would find at the same, that is, graduate institute level in certain other universities of Turkey and the world.

As this is going to be a descriptive rather than argumentative presentation, I may begin with a brief account of the course's history. I had earlier given, though for once only, a similar one-semester course at the master's degree level in the Philosophy Department of METU, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, where I had had my Ph D degree in philosophy. Three years ago I began to give this course in its present setting with its original title, namely, "Ethics, Bioethics and Biopolitics". The following year it became a doctoral course, and in the past academic year I gave it under the title, "Philosophy, Bioethics and Biopolitics". For the 1998-1999 academic year, I have changed the title further into "Scientific Philosophy, Bioethics and Biopolitics". As one could also infer from such an academic plasticity perhaps, this is an elective course, just like all the others in the program of the related department. And as one would possibly expect, the rationale of this change in a rather short period of time will be made clear in the course of the presentation, particularly when we see the course's systematics and the material I have used in it.

With regard to the clarification of the terms of the title and their relationship with those of the section titles in the text, I may just mention here that I have used "environmental ethics" in the title of the introduction as a near-equivalent of the complex term of "bioethics and biopolitics", stressing the former's overall or combined theoretical and practical aspects. As for the reason/occasion of my involvement in the overall programme of the related department, it was during an in part international meeting on Biopolitics Education held in «ukurova University in Adana some years ago (see ref. 1) that my colleague Berna Alpagut, a professor of paleoanthropology and the then director of the newly established unit at the Social Sciences Institute, made a proposal to me, together with her colleagues, for a course on biopolitics and bioethics.

Academic expectations from the course

To be able to help the reader better appreciate the purpose of the course and what one should expect as an ultimate academic aim from the related overall graduate programme, I might perhaps mention the topics of certain other courses in the latter's doctoral part together with the faculty settings of the responsible academics. Altogether there are twenty-four graduate courses given by fifteen academics, mostly professors. Of these, seven are doctoral courses, which I would like to mention here: "the climate and the environment" (by a physical geographer), "evolutionary ecology" (by a paleoanthropologist), "the environment and law" and "the intellectual roots of ecology" - seminar (by an academic in urban studies and local government), "the institutional and legal framework of the environment management in Turkey" and "the environmental impact assessment" (by a lawyer who is an academic working in the Ministry of the Interior), and my course. It must be obvious that as we should expect in the area of social sciences and the environment, this is truly an inter- or cross-disciplinary graduate programme with a variety of academic fields represented in its realization.

So far as the distance between their respective faculties/departments are concerned, and whether one would expect it or not, the variety of the student background in my courses in the three-year period has been higher than the overall variety of the courses and even the teachers' academic disciplines. Except in two cases, each of the following academic/professional fields has been represented by one student only: paleoanthropology, history of art, landscape architecture, environmental engineering, law, social anthropology, psychology/psychological counseling, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, city planning, business administration, economics, journalism, and medicine. Some of the doctoral students had received a master's degree from the Social Sciences and the Environment Department; while others had different backgrounds in this respect, such as international relations or forensic medicine.

As would also be expected, I think, both the students' and my own expectations from the course, so far as the variety involved in it is concerned, have been reflected in their mid-term presentations and the term papers they have submitted. This will be clearly shown in a selection from among the latter's titles: "landscape architecture and its ethical problems"; "medicine in the light of professional and institutional values"; "tolerance and ethics"; "the museum professionals and their ethics"; "law and ethics in the context of the environment"; "politics, democracy and ethics"; "the responsibility of living in a city and being a citizen"; "city planning and its ethical problems"; "genetic engineering and ethics"; "the media ethics"; "a criticism of the Kantian ethics"; "the earth ethics"; "city planning and its ethical problems"; "the search for moral directives and the ethico-cognitive parallelism" (on chapter four, with the same title, of Reichenbach's The Rise of Scientific Philosophy"). (I am also the supervisor of a master's thesis of one of my early students, a landscape architect, her topic being "An Evaluative Inquiry into Environmental Esthetics from an Ethical Standpoint -- Ankara as a case in point".)

One should not infer, by comparing the set of students with that of the term papers, that there was a direct correlation in every case between the professional background in the former and the topics of the latter. For instance, the topic of the ethics of genetic engineering was written by a graduate of journalism, and that on politics, democracy and ethics by the mechanical engineer who is also, incidentally, a navy colonel. On the whole, however, and not surprisingly to be sure, the students were in principle inclined to treat those moral issues and ethical topics which were relevant to their undergraduate education. This would mean, in our context here, that the students have in general had an expectation from the course for a contribution to the understanding of the ethical problems in their original academic field. In other and more specific terms, they were rather inclined to work on the ethics or ethical issues of their "original" profession.

As for my academic/scientific expectations from the course as the teacher, what I could summarize here would be the following. As in other and more or less similar academic contexts, I expect the "learner" to be an active participant of this course and to acquaint him/her with what one could call the "essentials" of philosophy. Obviously, these are, in a certain sense, "my essentials", that is, methodologically basic points as I see them from the standpoint of Hans Reichenbach's (and my own) scientific philosophy as an extension of logical empiricism. My intention here is that the student should have a general idea of how philosophy as an essentially conceptual activity should be really conceived and studied. Following my presentation in the commemoration meeting of Reichenbach's 100th birthday in Ankara in 1991 (2), one of my doctoral students was saying to her colleagues in our Department that she was glad to observe also those philosophical approaches other than Yaman ÷rs's (3, 4); in like manner, and although Reichenbach's The Rise of Scientific Philosophy has certainly much the greater share in my course, I am trying to be careful in not being a hindrance for the student to have a basic idea about other "philosophical" approaches to philosophy. Ethics being a branch of philosophy, and as ethical views of philosophers very much depend on their overall philosophical conceptions, the supposedly "introductory" part of the course actually takes half of the course time. And my expectations as regards this "philosophical founding" of the course is pedagogically very much related to the clarification of ethical views in philosophy.

A systematics of the course together with the material used

The course is presented for one (spring) semester as three hours en bloc per week. In congruence with my own philosophical methodology as a "scientific philosopher" in the sense Hans Reichenbach has used the term, and, as one would expect, my first and foremost material is his The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, the students being responsible for about half of the book. Among the chapters studied in the course are, in their original order, the introductory chapter, followed by "The Search for certainty and the Rationalistic Conception of Knowledge", "The Search for Moral Directives and the Ethico-Cognitive Parallelism", "The Origin of the New Philosophy", "The Functional Conception of Knowledge", "The Nature of Ethics", and the last one on "The Old and the New Philosophy: a Comparison" (5). As must be clear, we are studying not only those chapters and parts of Reichenbach's book which are related or relatable to ethics, but also those which are significant so far as a basic methodological concern about philosophical activity, the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science are concerned. As a special and further developed form of logical empiricism in our time, Reichenbach's radically methodological approach to philosophy (although he does not use the term "methodology") gives us a good chance for a deep and multidimensional understanding of the function(s), working, and problems of this activity. And as I am a close follower of Reichenbach's scientific philosophy, and logical empiricism in general, this has been a real academic necessity for me, because only in this way can one satisfactorily clarify, I believe, the status of ethics and its differentiated extensions such as medical ethics, health ethics, or ethics of the professions in general. The overall methodology involved in this educational process allows us, further, to compare the value/prescriptive and descriptive linguistic utterances of ethics or our moral sphere with the empirical/ synthetic propositions about the states of affairs in the world, whether at the general phenomenal or special event level. What I want to stress is that ontologically (if one may use this expression in this context), conceptually, and linguistically, or from an overall methodological standpoint, there does exist a close relationship between the empirical states of affairs and our moral valuations, ideals and principles. However, this does not at all imply a similarity relationship but one of dependence. (As it involves a philosophically technical approach, I do not discuss in my course the supervenience of moral values on the states of affairs in the world.)

As in the case of philosophy in general, in the sphere of ethics, too, students in this course are expected, and even encouraged, to make full use of "other", that is to say, "non-÷rs", non-logical empiricist references, as reading and discussion material. And I expect them to read one or two essential works of Aristotle and Kant, available in Turkish, representing somewhat different approaches to morality/ethics from, at the same time, two periods widely apart in philosophical evolution. Among such material are also works, as critical compilations of ethical and meta-ethical views of different philosophers, written by Turkish authors.

When we come to the topic of Bioethics towards the end of the course programme, then I give the students a selection of my writings, in Turkish and in English, on ethics, bioethics and, also, biopolitics. I also advise them to read the related literature on the last two subjects, particularly those "basic" publications that have appeared earlier and which I have made use of, whether extensively or not. In the case of biopolitics, all the related literature comes from the authors who have contributed to the congresses, symposia, and so on, hence to the publications of Biopolitics International Organization located in Athens, with Doctor Agni Vlavianos-Arvanitis being its founder and president (see ref. 1 and 6).

The method and the pedagogics

So far as both the method and an underlying dynamic pedagogics is concerned, I must say in the very beginning in this section that I believe not only in the justifiability but also the necessity of the teacher's being an active participant in ethical discussions. That is to say, wherever appropriate and relevant, I never hesitate during my overall courses (and this even at the undergraduate level) to express my own ethical decisionmaking (7) and, if I deem necessary, its implications. This principle of pedagogical methodology, if it can be called as such, and in case properly applied, would enrich any academic (as well as non-academic) discussion in the sphere of moral values. Could one talk about a negative impact of this on the student's moral views and thinking? That is, would the student be influenced by "the professor's words", and defend his own analysis accordingly, or in a "biased" way? Well, he/she should learn "to protect" his/her own moral sphere by outside influences, without, of course, closing oneself to the possibility of change thereby. Just as in the case of other areas, such as science, philosophy or the philosophy of science, for instance, where one should never close one's mind to what others, including the teacher, say and have written. It is, above all, a critical awareness which every "learner" (including, of course, the teacher-learner) should possess; and this very strongly implies, as I see it, the necessity of giving one's rationales (7) in any sort of academic activity in its inner workings, application and teaching. Of course, the rationales do differ greatly in accordance with the methodological status of the activity in question. Thus, it becomes an empirical/phenomenal rationale in science and elsewhere in relation to the empirical world; a logical rationale, above all in philosophy; morally prescriptive rationale, first and foremost, in ethics/ morality; esthetic rationale in artistic activity, and so on. From a meta-ethical point of view, this position is certainly in accordance with a subjectivist position in morality, which is opposed, however, to emotivist and/or relativist views as well as objectivist ones in ethics and its teaching. And even in the case of essentially meta-ethical problems, the "neutrality thesis" in ethics teaching is methodologically unjustified let alone in principle unrealizable.

One of the basic principles in my pedagogical methodology, as well as in the methodology of ethical thinking and discussions, is my stress on the end-means distinction. As we know, this is generally known and widely considered in circles of moral philosophy, and necessarily taken into account in the related discussions. We may call this, as Reichenbach does (5, pp. 279, 297, 315-316, 319-320), the end-means implication, the implication or relation between ends and means as well, and also distinguish between different aims in accordance with a related hierarchy we form in our minds. There is, however, another distinction in ethics, which is generally disregarded but seems to me, meta-ethically speaking, not less basic than the first one. We must also distinguish between the subject and the object while considering the moral questions of any sort, just because, evidently, these two categories are always "there" in ethics. In this latter case, too, it seems that we may justifiably use the terms "distinction", "implication", and "relation". The subject is the person who has a moral attitude and possesses moral values and makes moral valuations, judgments, decisions. The object, or objects as the case may be, in the moral sphere are those people or, in more comprehensive terms, the living systems in general to which the subject directs his/her moral attitude and values. (Moral subjects, too, can of course be plural and not necessarily singular in a given instance of moral issues and debate.) Accordingly, in our courses, I am stressing the necessity and/or inevitability of taking into account these two distinctions or implications in ethics, and, to be sure, bioethics and biopolitics, and to see ethical issues mainly, though not exclusively, in their light as well.

It becomes mostly in the responsibility of the students to choose beforehand the points of academic interest for consideration during our discussions on the material determined one or two weeks earlier. What I suggest them, by way of a general, philosophical discursive framework is that they should bring those points which would have academic significance as well as a relevance to the course, or would be ethically meaningful for them as individuals: philosophical depth, universality, historical importance, professional relevance, moral/ethical intensity and/or academically interesting actuality. Sometimes, too, and as would be expected I think, I draw their attention to those topics/points which I find worth discussing from an academic point of view, and which I establish or observe in the course of their "routine" presentations or among the material on the "agenda". At all events, the first and foremost methodological-pedagogical aspect of our transactions in the course is my insistence on a critical attitude and evaluation of the points to be considered, from an individual as well as academic viewpoint.

Brief critical conclusion: educational implications

I would like to begin the concluding section of this final text by adding a certain remark and suggestion on the part of my colleague Doctor Alpagut during the discussions at the end of my presentation. Apparently I had given the audience the impression that I find a one-semester course on the subject rather insufficient in terms of the number of hours allocated to it. It was apparently because I did not have enough time to further elaborate our discussions on the topics mentioned in the title, particularly bioethics and biopolitics, and, perhaps, also on ethics as their academic "mother" discipline. Her proposal was that I could possibly give a two-semester course every year, of which the winter part could be dedicated to an overall consideration of philosophy, which could be both an end in itself and also preparatory to the second part in the summer semester to be allocated to the issues of meta-ethics and the moral problems of bioethics and biopolitics. She was possibly right. And it was at the end of my course in the past academic year that one of my students raised a similar point during a final critical evaluation of the whole course. Her observation was that we had had too little time for a full exposition of the topics of bioethics and biopolitics, and other students more or less shared this concern.

Such critical remarks on the allocation of time to the course as a whole and to its parts seem to be justified. Particularly in the matter of the elaboration of bioethics and biopolitics, I was thinking that once we have discussed the methodological aspects of philosophy in general and those of ethics in particular, critically and somewhat in detail if not extensively, then the students' reading the related literature in the former disciplines would possibly suffice for the understanding of the problems involved therein. Stated otherwise, a critical, discursive and non-didactic elaboration of the general could be readily followed, so to say, by a descriptive reading of the texts on special subjects with little if any need of academic support to the student on the part of the teacher. In the light of the critical evaluations of the course, however, I see that in actual fact this has not been so, and this in spite of the preceding methodological discussions on what is generally known as philosophical ethics. This has mainly been so because I was thinking, just as I do now, that as a specific instance of the set-subset relation in general, special problems of bioethics and biopolitics, as well as their solution, could not readily be "inferred" from those of ethics as the related comprehensive area. It seems that besides being a topical problem, this is a methodological question as well -- most of the time, I believe, the subsets of the academic fields as sets are their differentiated extensions with certain properties not to be found in the latter.

I do not yet know what critical changes I shall be able to make in the overall plan of the course, particularly in the light of the above-mentioned criticisms. All in all, however, it seems that apparently a cross- or multi-disciplinary criticism in this matter has indeed been functional in my case as an academic teacher, perhaps parallel to my expectation that the student should have developed a critically balanced skepticism in the related topics at the end of the term.

1. ÷rs, Y. 1995. The Colours of Peace: White, Blue and Green. EJAIB 5: 123-124.
2. ÷rs, Y. 1992. (The 'Unwinged Spirits' in Philosophy or the Dilemma of Traditional Philosophy.) Felsefe Tartýþmalarý (Philosophical Discussions), Book 11: 106-121. (in Turkish)
3. Zahino_lu-Pelin, S. 1991. (Private communication).
4. ÷rs, Y. 1992. (Philosophical Errors on Philosophy.) Felsefe Tartýþmalarý (Philosophical Discussions), Book 12: 61-75. (in Turkish)
5. Reichenbach, H. (1951) 1966. The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. University of California Press, Berkeley.
6. ÷rs, Y. 1994. Music, Physics, and Biopolitics. Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 4: 74.
7. ÷rs, Y. 1993. Teaching medical ethics in the subjunctive mood. Bulletin of Medical Ethics 93: 31-36.

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