On the so-called Scientific Ethics

- Yaman Ors, MD. DPhil,
Professor of Deontology and Medical History,
Department of Deontology, Ankara Medical Faculty, Sihhiye, 06100 Ankara, TURKEY

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 162-3.


The more or less regular reader of the EJAIB would have witnessed the rather frequent use of the term "Scientific Ethics" in its different parts, particularly in the news section. I am not sure about whether such a usage is peculiar to English or if we might see it as frequently in other languages as well. At all events, and given the fact that English has been the foremost linguistic medium in bioethics so far (as in the case of other academic fields in general), it seems that one could relevantly and justifiably consider the term from a critically methodological point of view, as I intend to do in the present context.

It may be that the coinage of the term "scientific ethics" in English has been due to finding a parallelism with "medical ethics", apparently a basically established term with a clear or unequivocal meaning. But I believe that those "bioethicists", who seem to use the former uncritically, disregard the semantic fact that the term may have at least two main senses. On the one hand, it would, and does, mean "the ethics of scientific activity", or simply "science ethics". The latter does indeed express, already, what is actually intended by the term "scientific ethics". On the other hand, however, it could, and in methodological terms indeed does, imply that there would actually be a scientific ethics in the sense that ethical utterances are very similar to if not identical with propositions on matters of fact as mental-linguistic units. And this is allegedly taken to be one of the main supports of that metaethical view in philosophy which is called "ethical objectivism".

A related term in this context is "ethical theory", one which seems to have been really engrained in the minds of the methodologically uncritical traditional philosophers. The underlying approach here has even been taken for granted, evidently, by the majority of those bioethicists whose original background has not been philosophy. And with a very similar and unjustifiable use of such related terms as "ethical law", "ethical knowledge", "ethical truth" and so on, the metaethical considerations and moral justifications of the traditionally minded thinkers in the circles of ethics and bioethics are as a rule based, in my view, on nothing but quasi solid grounds. I think that such methodologically grave errors in moral philosophy, not of recent origin to be sure, are basically due to a mistaken conception of philosophy as a whole. Instead of conceiving the business of contemporary philosophy as one of critical conceptual-semantic-logical analysis and interpretation, the traditionally minded thinker sees his/her conceptual product as something similar to if not totally identical with that of (social) science. Hence, evidently, Ethical Theory as concept, and Ethical Objectivism as a metaethical stance.

As it appears to be the case in our time, philosophical views, doctrines, approaches, tendencies, and what not, cannot be termed "theories" in the first and foremost sense of the term. This is because in this sense it means, necessarily I think, a Scientific Theory as a conceptual framework and with a function to pave the way for systematic observation, measurement, calculation, experimentation, reasoning and other empirical and/or mental scientific operations with a view to explaining the immense variety of phenomena at different levels of organization in the world.

The formulation of theories in relation to our moral idealizations, as in the case of other subjects as topics of scientific interest, is therefore not the business of philosophy but of sciences, more explicitly of social/human sciences, represented, more typically in the present context, by such fields as sociology, psychology and social psychology. The basic rationale underlying the view that our moral values have an objective status must evidently go parallel with the claim that there can be Ethical Truth very similar to empirical truth. According to the view called Ethical Objectivism, the truth of what is asserted by some ethical sentence is independent of the person who uses this sentence, the time at which he uses it, and the place where he uses it. It seems that moral assertions would then assume, if they are assertions at all, qualities like those of scientific propositions, above all, perhaps, that of verifiability-falsifiability.

On the subjective or subjectivist view to be defended here, and as different from arbitrariness, relativism and emotionalism, our moral values are our wishes about human action. Ultimately they are our moral idealizations with qualities of expressibility, discussibility, criticizability, changeability, redefinibality; and which are in principle defendable, hence objectifiable in the sense that they are (linguistically) reasonably exteriorizable.

If one thinks, in accordance with the objectivity claim in ethics, that what one believes to be "ethically true" has a directly objective, empirically valid status, then one would in principle have the right to expect an almost thorough inter-subjective consensus in bioethical and, generally speaking, moral matters. It would also follow, from a pedagogical point of view, that the teachers of ethics and bioethics should have the self-expectation of conveying the "ethical knowledge" to their students (and the "general audience") through "ethical theories and laws", because it is "the science of ethics" for whose teaching they are academically/professionally responsible. So far as the general state of affairs in human life are concerned, however, this appears to be quite in opposition to what is actually the case - great variety and differences in moral idealizations between individuals, professional groups, socioeconomic classes, cultures, societies, and so on. Students of bioethics are indeed confused, evidently, as they most sincerely try to reconcile ethical objectivism with differences in such social and/or political, basically axiological concepts as democracy and justice, individuals'and groups'political tendencies, and so on; or with differences of opinion among thinkers or their teachers, for that matter.

Moral problems are clearly open-ended, and this from the very beginning. When the social/human scientist studies moral values, this is essentially for the purpose of producing scientific knowledge in the related sphere, however tentative that may be, and certainly not for the qualitatively different philosophical work of the mental recognition and critical evaluation of moral issues and idealizations.

In between how we feel and think about human action and how we act in the related sphere, and as a result of an inevitable human quality it seems, we find our attitudes, plans, project and the like, and, ultimately in practical terms, our decisions. What we do in the related philosophical activity may apparently be considered within this category - our thoughts, concepts, ideas, views, approaches produced through abstraction, reflection, conceptualization, and other possible mental operations; including also, to be sure, our defendable strong points, consistencies, as well as our weak points, inconsistencies, and even obvious contradictions...

Every human activity has evidently its own limits. As for the limits of philosophy, I think that they would apparently be narrower in the case of ethics and, by extension, bioethics, than in other areas of philosophical activity such as epistemology, the philosophy of science or that of mathematics. For one thing, we must remind ourselves, one more time, of the rather sharp distinction between the activity of social sciences and the business of philosophy as regards the study of our moral values. While the moral philosopher is concerned with a critically semantic-logical evaluation of our moral values, and with a descriptive consideration of and a critical discussion on them; the social scientist is basically interested in their explanation by means of the general/actual determinants in question such as genetic, psychosexual, socioeconomic, cultural and possibly other determining factors in relation to our attitudes and conduct. And whatever different (philosophical) views there may exist so far as scientific "objectivity" in general is concerned, the question of objectivity on the part of the social/human scientist must certainly not be confused with the essentially subjective, prescriptive, and dynamic nature of our values as the subject matter of ethics or, rather perhaps, morality.

However, this meta-ethical approach is different from the "cool" and "distanced" attitude to our moral values and views, as seems to be the case, and generally speaking, in the analytical and mostly Anglo-Saxon philosophy. In my view, both rationally analytical, descriptive and evaluative approaches to moral problems on the one hand, and self-awareness and self-analysis of onefs "moral psychology", so to say, and moral thinking and valuation on the other hand, appear to be the necessary conditions in moral philosophy. Even in the seemingly "pure" logical study of our own and/or others'moral values and moral judgements, possibly as in the logic of our moral expressions in general or deontological logic for instance, one would doubt if philosophers as moral agents can totally dispense with the ethical content of their own and/or other individuals'conceptual/linguistics formulations.

We may justifiably say that what appeals most to the philosophers of science and other philosophers interested in scientific activity is the topic of theories (as well as scientific explanation). This is quite understandable because the latter constitute as a rule a set of concepts with an essentially broad scope, more or less comparable to those which are the basic tools of philosophers, that is, concepts of universal content and/or scope; and any concept for that matter, is, in principle, abstract, a quality which is evidently so appealing to philosophically minded individuals and, to be sure, to philosophers.

Seen in a basic methodological perspective, and in spite of the complementarity of the two activities so far as the understanding of the world is concerned, we may safely say I think that science has now become one of the external factors with a limiting effect on philosophy. Their apparent historical togetherness, which is in general based on an uncritically assumed, almost overall methodological resemblance, no longer exists. On the other hand, they are, perhaps, more united in our time than ever, but this represents an academic interaction and certainly not a similarity relationship, in method as well as the level of technicality.

As for the traditionally minded, speculative philosophers'own limiting effects on their "professional" activity, one would certainly need much more space for a sufficient if not comprehensive consideration of this vital academic point. In our present context, namely ethics, and bioethics in all its diverse dimensions, a last point may possibly be mentioned. Such terms as "ethicist", "bioethicist" or "biomedical ethicist", with their unfortunate suffix "-ist", implying, not necessarily though, an academic and/or professional authority, strongly suggest, in my view, the function of a moralist. An assumed function whereby the latter would "know" the best choice, decision, and line of action so far as our moral values are concerned... and one which is itself quite doubtful from a moral point of view.
- The author has made an extensive use of the two following presentations in the preparation of the present text:

- Y. Ors: The myth of ethical theory and its implications in the teaching of bioethics; poster presentation, Inaugural Congress of the International Association of Bioethics, Amsterdam, 5-7 October 1992.


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