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WHAT ‘EMPIRICAL TURN IN BIOETHICS’?

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Abstract:

ABSTRACT

Uncertainty as to how we should articulate empirical data and normative reasoning seems to underlie most difficulties regarding the ‘empirical turn’ in bioethics. This article examines three different ways in which we could understand ‘empirical turn’. Using real facts in normative reasoning is trivial and would not represent a ‘turn’. Becoming an empirical discipline through a shift to the social and neurosciences would be a turn away from normative thinking, which we should not take. Conducting empirical research to inform normative reasoning is the usual meaning given to the term ‘empirical turn’. In this sense, however, the turn is incomplete. Bioethics has imported methodological tools from empirical disciplines, but too often it has not imported the standards to which researchers in these disciplines are held. Integrating empirical and normative approaches also represents true added difficulties. Addressing these issues from the standpoint of debates on the fact-value distinction can cloud very real methodological concerns by displacing the debate to a level of abstraction where they need not be apparent. Ideally, empirical research in bioethics should meet standards for empirical and normative validity similar to those used in the source disciplines for these methods, and articulate these aspects clearly and appropriately. More modestly, criteria to ensure that none of these standards are completely left aside would improve the quality of empirical bioethics research and partly clear the air of critiques addressing its theoretical justification, when its rigour in the particularly difficult context of interdisciplinarity is what should be at stake.

Keywords: empirical research; ethical theory; ethics; interdisciplinary communication; methodology

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01720.x

Affiliations: Geneva Medical School, Switzerland and University Hospitals of Geneva

Publication date: 2010-10-01

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