Bioethicists as Public Advocates

Syd Johnson calls for bioethicists to better serve the public interest by cultivating substantive and critical discussion of ethically complex issues.


Although bioethicists are generally found within the walls of academic institutions, many are not full-time residents of the “ivory tower.” Much more than other academics, bioethicists assume several roles in public affairs, including serving on government commissions and task forces, on research ethics boards and ethics committees, and as consultants in contentious clinical cases. They are summoned to testify as expert witnesses in courts and before legislatures, and they are called on by journalists to comment on news relating to science and medicine. The many roles bioethicists occupy bring with them weighty responsibilities, and there is need for critical reflection on how bioethicists can best serve the public interest in a way that reflects and is accountable to public needs.

Bioethicists are frequently called upon by journalists to comment on some interesting/scary/strange new development in science or medicine. This provides an opportunity for bioethicists to contribute to informed civic discourse. Parsi and Geraghty describe the importance of this latter function:

As science and technology reach ever deeper into individuals’ lives, the objective of greater civic discourse becomes even more critical. Deliberative democracy demands that citizens be informed and knowledgeable about public issues. The bioethicist qua public intellectual should play an important role in helping to educate citizens in a variety of venues by becoming part of a dialogue that includes many different actors on the public stage.

Carina Nebula, Hubble Telescope, NASA

Carina Nebula, Hubble Telescope, NASA

The opportunity to spark meaningful discourse is lost when bioethicists, on the spot and in the spotlight, merely blurt out a laundry list of questions, or some unfortunate bit of conjecture that fuels the perception (perhaps not unfounded) that bioethicists are professional speculators, science fiction writers, handwringers about what hasn’t happened yet, and might never happen. Asking questions fits in very handily with the role in which many bioethicists, particularly those situated in the academy, are comfortable, which is teaching in a classroom. This does not work so well in a media interview, however, where the lengthy explanatory discussion that contextualizes inquiry is condensed to a soundbite. While formulating interesting questions is good and frequently instructive, it is far more enlightening in the classroom, where there is time for guided, critical reflection, and room for considering context and exploring the provocative greyness of bioethical issues. But the dumbed-down Socratic method is ill-suited to interactions with the media-as-public-surrogate. To make the public environment more conducive to thoughtful, critical reflection may require not taking the bait that journalists dangle, and refusing to offer the soundbite-ready list of speculative, far-out questions.

One of the tasks of bioethicists is surely to think about the possible implications of developments in science and medicine, along with the ethical concerns that accompany them. But to do so exclusively, for the sake of list-making for public consumption, is not really creating a discourse so much as playing the part of Cassandra. When the prophecies turn out to be untrue, bioethicists risk suffering the fate of Cassandra, losing credibility with the very public they can and should be helping to inform. Moreover, it misses an opportunity to critically and reflectively engage with issues the public cares about, and concerns that actually affect many people right now, in favor of idle speculation about things that might someday happen, or technologies that will only be accessible to the very few. As Turner laments,

despite their visibility, many bioethicists are not particularly insightful critics of contemporary medicine and biotechnology… And while I support the desire of many scholars to contribute in an accessible manner to broad public debates, some bioethicists seem to be more interested in providing sound bites than in the traditional academic role of addressing complex issues in depth… Unless bioethicists want their field to lose all credibility, they need to rethink what they study, how they frame complex ethical issues for public debate, what their public role should be, and what it means to do their work with integrity.

An overlooked but important role for bioethicists is to help educate the public, and enhance bioethical literacy in the public, and among journalists. Most of what passes for bioethics information for the general public are hysterical soundbites about the latest controversy, what Bernard Rollin describes as “the most shrill and dramatic articulations of these problems.”  Without “ethically informed expertise to counter and moderate the distortions inherent in such formulations, they tend to dominate the social mind and drive the legitimate ethical concerns out of its awareness.” This happens primarily, Rollin argues, because scientists and researchers do not themselves critically engage with the ethical issues inherent in their work.    The resulting information vacuum is one that bioethicists are uniquely well-positioned to help fill with thoughtful, critical discourse, both because the media already turns to them for comment, and because they have cultivated a capacity to communicate the richness and complexity of these issues. But to do so, bioethicists must stop being hoarders of the bioethical currency, leaving only the least valuable coin for the public to pocket.  Engaging in advocacy by articulating and promoting ethical viewpoints on issues of concern to the public in a way that informs and contextualizes provides space for thoughtful public discourse. The public square is the right place for this — it is not a classroom, where, as educators we should be concerned about the undue influence and power dynamics that trouble our interactions with students. We have no such power over the public. We have, however, an obligation both to submit our ideas to the crucible of public opinion, and to endeavor to provide an expansive ethical frame within which we can guide public opinion towards more thoughtful and informed consideration of ethical concerns. By directing discourse towards informed and reasonable discussion of what already matters to the public, we can cultivate substantive and critical conversation rather than easily digestible but non-nutritive soundbites.


L. Syd M Johnson PhD is a professor of Philosophy and Bioethics at Michigan Technological University, Michigan, USA. She is a former postdoctoral fellow in neuroethics at Novel Tech Ethics.

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