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Ethical Issues in Science and Medicine: A Philosophical Perspective

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Given that there is much disagreement as to what constitutes “philosophy”, even among philosophers, it is a challenge to provide a philosophical perspective. There are, however, at least two areas which most philosophers would regard as coming within the terrain of philosophical thinking: (1) the clarification of issues, and (2) providing some sort of a foundation on which further thinking can take place. Thus, by way of contributing a philosophical perspective to the discussion here, I will try to clarify some of the more fundamental issues regarding ethical debates in the hope of establishing some kind of a theoretical foundation on which to base our discussion of the more specific issues which concern us. In addition, I will keep in mind that a philosophical perspective is intended to widen the scope of our discussion.

The term “ethics” has featured a lot in present-day discussions, whether in the media, in public discussions or in more specialized areas such as medicine. This gathering, which focuses on ethical issues in radiology is a very good example of how relevant this word has become. We are becoming more aware of the need for a code of conduct to guide our deliberations on various matters. The impression that is thus given is that adherence to such a code (particularly if that has been drawn up by the profession) makes our conduct “ethical”.

The first point that I want to state and clarify is that ethics and ethical conduct are much more than merely following an agreed way of behaving—the impression one gets from all the talk about the need for ethics in various areas or fields. Having a code of conduct is of course important and essential, but it would be misleading to think that “ethics” or “ethical decision/judgment” is merely a matter of “going by the book”, as it were. That is what makes discussions regarding ethical issues, be they in radiology or in any other areas, so complicated and so seemingly inconclusive. Why? Because when we ask what the ethical thing to do is in a situation, it is a question that is actually multi-faceted. It is not the same as merely asking for information, as when we ask for directions to reach our destination. In ethical discourse, for instance, asking the question: “How much radiation would be considered ethical?”, we need to consider not just what it is that we are proposing to do, but also why we want to do it, how it would affect various parties, whether this is in keeping with values that we ought to uphold, whether we are setting precedents, or whether we would be acting if there were the risk that everyone else would be following our example. Acting ethically, whether personally or professionally is much more complex and involved than simply adopting a code of conduct or following certain agreed guidelines.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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