Bioethics as Interdisciplinary, for Better or for Worse

Bioethics is de facto interdisciplinary in nature. Scientists and those in medicine, etc. engage in behavior that, where relevant, reflects their social norms and moral code. The impact of scientific discovery on society (even on those who do not actively use the discovery) is often deliberated by the bioethics community. Philosophers, thinkers, and lawyers have a role in fleshing out bioethics. Aligning how the many professionals involved evaluate the stakeholders’ interests is an important effort. Ethics is defined as moral philosophy and bioethics should hold tight to its relationship to morality and the complexity of navigating diverse cultural and social norms, laws, rightness and goodness, and individuality. Sometimes those who make a scientific discovery are not in a position to regulate its use or availability. Bioethics can act as a check on them.

However, in practice, many people in bioethics either have a dual role as a medical practitioner, researcher, or scientist and bioethicist. It is difficult to be a check on one’s own industry. As a field devoted to ethics, bioethics does not prevent conflicts of interest very well. For example, pediatricians sit on pediatric ethics committees. Doctors of all sorts sit on hospital ethics committees. US pharmaceutical companies’ bioethics committees include employees. Whether the conflict of interest poses a problem, furthers a bias, or promotes a product is difficult to measure. Many ethics committees do have unbiased members and the ones with seemingly built-in conflicts of interest may be educated in absorbing all viewpoints. Aside from conflicts, ethics committees tend to have more clinicians or scientists than they do philosophers or lawyers.

Clinical bioethics include social workers, patient advocates, possibly caregivers or people deciding on their own care. In specialty fields, geneticists, cybersecurity experts, technology analysts, privacy lawyers, and other experts contribute to bioethics. The clinical ethics committees are regulated, e.g., in New York there is a requirement that a social worker be on each.

The bread and butter of bioethics, the thing that makes it what it is, is that it includes philosophers, researchers, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists and policy experts each contributing to the body of theoretical work necessary.

A remaining issue, especially in the clinical sphere, is whether bioethics committees can absorb the breadth of the literature and apply moral philosophy to complex decisions in a timely way.

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