Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Teaching bioethics and religion

I was in the campus coffeeshop the other day (they are serving much better espresso this semester and I want to encourage this) and I overheard a student describing a bioethics-type course he was taking. It sounded like a pretty typical bioethics course, but then he added that his professor devoted a good amount of time to explaining what people from different religions think about issues like cloning, euthanasia, and so on. I don’t do this in my course, for reasons I’ll cover in this post, but as I was sitting there I started to wonder why. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be an interesting issue for discussion. So I thought I’d bring it here.

My goal in bioethics has always been to help students think through their reasons for taking positions on various issues while trying to point out the bad arguments and counter-intuitively good arguments along the way. So as I imagine most bioethics professors do, I start with brief overviews of utilitarian, Kantian, and care ethics that we then use to pigeon-hole particular approaches to issues. (Utilitarian arguments tend to support changing policies on opt-in organ donation, Kantians tend to have the hardest line against paternalistic treatment of patients and so on.) But I rarely talk about people’s religious beliefs despite the fact that far, far more people see the world in religious terms than, say, Kantian terms. (Seriously, when’s the last time you’ve had a conversation with a non-academic about bioethics that involved the categorical imperative?) I examined my reasons and here’s what I came up with:
  1. There are just too many religions. Do I teach Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist views of stem cell research, or do I teach Sunni, Shia, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox, Reformed Judaism, Mahayana, and Theravadan Buddhist views?
  2. Religions are not monolithic. Just because someone is a member of religion X doesn’t mean that he or she will share religion X’s position on an issue in bioethics. She might have her own understanding of the religion’s teaching. Or religion X may not even have an authority on all matters bioethical (like, say Protestant Christianity). If there’s no authoritative take, there’s not much one can say.
  3. Religious positions often make assumptions that aren’t universally shared. If you’re not a member of religion X, religion X’s position has no claim on you. If you aren’t a Christian, then the Christian take on God’s right to do what he wants with your life won’t change your position on the morality of suicide and euthanasia.

    But I think the deepest reason I don’t teach religious takes on bioethical issues is the following:
  4. Religious positions on ethical issues are only shorthand for deeper discussions in ethical theory. So the Judeo-Christian view of the right to life is a claim expressible in the religiously neutral terms of the debate over the moral status of fetuses as a person and what qualities one must have in order to have the right not to be killed unjustly. If we’re serious about the truth of claims about a right to life, the argument must be conducted in ethical terms, not religious ones. One reason that religions don’t always have monolithic views of bioethical issues is that individuals deliberate about issues in religiously-neutral, ethical terms.

Since (4) is my deepest reason, it seems like it matters that while many philosophers would agree, the vast majority of the population wouldn’t. In fact, they might see it as a kind of prejudice against voluntarist systems of ethics like the Divine Command Theory. Furthermore, they are far more likely to encounter religious talk about ethical issues than debates put in terms of consequences, autonomy, virtue, and so on. So grounding in religious views of issues in bioethics would be (a) more useful and (b) avoid an assumption about the nature of ethics that huge numbers of people disagree with.

I’m not going to start teaching bioethics in religious terms any time soon. But after thinking through my reasons, I do wonder if that’s not just a choice based on a pipe-dream that society will stop thinking about bioethics in terms of religion in the near future. If it is a pipe-dream, then maybe my students should be more informed about different religions’ views of bioethical issues in addition to analyzing the issues in terms of consequences, autonomy, and care.


  1. Hi Adam,
    I think I agree with your approach, but I've often had trouble in teaching issues like euthanasia/physician assisted suicide because students thought that religious "reasons" settled the issue and assumed that their religious "reasons" were just the religious "reasons" there were. If that's been an obstacle you've faced, you might consider discussing your (1)-(4) early on. If I were still teaching applied ethics, I'd do that. I usually discuss divine command theory and remind them that it is to many an impiety to say that the gods don't have reasons for their commands. That and reminding them of the dialectical importance of having non-religious reasons available to explain their views seemed to be helpful.

  2. It's surely not an all-or-nothing deal. If a particular religious tradition has a unique approach or justification for some position on some issue, that would be philosophically interesting to bring into discussion, and contextualizing it within the tradition might help students (or it might make it easier for them to dismiss...). That is, while in a philosophy class we certainly want to focus on getting the students to think about philosophically defensible justifications, I think we also want to teach them how to understand positions that might entail different conclusions/judgments than they have. And so looking at theological contexts could help with fostering that. Obviously, you can't do as much in a philosophical ethics class as you would, say, in a course on bioethics & world religions (which would be a neat class, surely). And 4 above seems to be a fair enough response if someone complained in your class that you should really be looking at issue x from such and such religious perspective...

  3. I teach a Philosophy Class on Ethics and Life Choices, and a Religion Class on Religious Ethics and Moral Problems. I try to keep religion out of the philosophy class because I want the two classes to be differentiated.

    But let me recommend a good book if you want to bring religious perspectives into bioethics: Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism In Japan by William LaFleur.

    Many students assume that the religious position on abortion is the Catholic position. When they learn that there is more than one religious attitude, they realize that just invoking a religion doesn't provide an immediate justification. Also, the attitude of Japanese Buddhists is hard to pigeonhole. They think that abortion is bad, but that there are ways to atone for it. A woman who chooses an abortion may then spend the rest of her life performing ceremonies that are supposed to help the soul of her lost child. Pro-life students find this shocking, because it grants women permission to have an abortion, pro-choice students find it shocking because of the belief that there is a baby who has been hurt. LaFleur discusses how the different attitude to abortion is the result of a whole different metaphysics of human identity, in which personal identity is, as the title suggests, fluid. Both the standard pro-choice and pro-life views one usually encounters start to seem like two sides of a single coin.

    As you say, it would be difficult to survey every religious viewpoint, and one cannot simply talk about "the Buddhist position": LaFleur's book is a study not of the Buddhist position on abortion, but on the position of (the majority of) Japanese Buddhists. I think that bringing in that perspective could really enrich a Bioethics Class.

  4. That sounds fascinating, Ben. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Ben, there's also an article by Roy Perrett (sp?), anthologized several places, that discusses Buddhist views of abortion. It's fascinating stuff.

    Adam: A lot of this depends on what you suppose we're doing in teaching ethics. Are we trying to help students achieve clarity on their values? Or are we engaged in inquiry that aims to yield conclusions all can endorse? And if so, must those conclusions be supported the same (non-religious) premises? There's a way of seeing many bioethical decisions as essentially personal, as between me and my God, so to speak. But if it's the latter, then of course religious premises are more problematic. (I take myself to be making a Rawlsian point here.) I've had some success with strategies like (4), asking religiously oriented students, "OK, so can you express your ethical views in a non-religious vernacular and make them seem convincing without the 'God makes it so,' 'God commands it,' etc.?" This can be useful in getting students to question just how much of their own ethical perspective flows from their religious perspectives.

    But (1) is a good approach too: Students sometimes think that ethical disagreement boils down to religious values (monolithic, lacking in internal diversity) versus secular values (also monolithic, lacking in internal diversity). My hope is that by studying philosophical ethics, students will see the large diversity within the latter category (utilitarianism, Kantianism, contractualism, etc.). But it's worth helping them see that the former category has at least as much internal diversity as the latter. Pointing out the plurality of ethical stances found within and across religious traditions helps to counteract what I call students' "grand convergence theory of religion": All religions are basically the same, at most, modest notational variants of one another. It's surprising just how common this facile view is!

  6. I add to (2) that there usually really isn't "the" one and only religious (i.e., Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) perspective on an issue. That is, some people say, "The Christian perspective on abortion (or the death penalty, or euthanasia or..) is.." but that is rarely true. There are some Christians that think and argue that doing X is wrong, whereas others argue that it is permissible. And typically each has various verses and whatnot to appeal to. I think it's important to point this out. (Rachels has a nice discussion of something similar to this in his Elements of Moral Philosophy).

    Also I emphasize a Euthypro-like theme: if some religion or authority says we should do something (or not do something) either they have reasons or not for their view. If they don't, then the view is arbitrary; if they do, then those reasons are what would make the action have its moral status, and we can all try to identify and evaluate these reasons, from whatever religious perspectives we have (or none).

  7. Reasons 1-3 sound like variations on the same theme and surely exactly the same reason(s) could be used to avoid teaching any approach to moral philosophy?

    1. There are too many philosophies - emotivism, existentialism, logical positivism, virtue ethics, Kantianism, situation ethics etc etc

    2. Each philosophy is not monolithic - even Bentham and Mill have such profound differences one could argue that the is no one utilitarian position on anything

    3. Philosophical schools make assumptions that aren't universally shared - "we are doomed to be free", "'X is good' only means 'I like X'

    And you already seem to doubt yourself over reason 4. When I taught medicine earlier in my career, I always advised students that even if they were not religious themselves, they would encounter on a daily basis, many patients who were, and that learning about religious world views was part of good 'whole-patient' care.

    If philosophy is about understanding every aspect of life, more logical reasons than those you present here are required to justify excluding religious aspects.

    I am programme director of a university Masters course in Bioethics which markets itself on the unique basis in the UK, that we do consider faith perspectives to be relevant but they have to be coherently argued just like any other.

    We attract students of all faiths and none on the course from all over the world and, at the risk of making myself a hostage to fortune, I would hope a secular state higher educational system would not validate the course if religious bioethics were all as ad hoc as you seem to think.

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  9. In very quick reply to Trevor, it seems to me that varying moral theories can (and should) have some appeal that differing religious perspectives typically do not. That is, varying factors such as whether an action will produce happiness or not, whether its an act you'd be willing to have done universally (including to you), whether an action contributes to a stable society, etc. seem to all be at least prima facie morally relevant: thus, there is typically at least something plausible about most well-developed moral theories and people recognize this. I don't see this same reaction to differing religious views. So, while a utilitarian will likely see some plausibility with Kantian ethics (and vice versa), a Christian is not likely to see some plausibility in, say, Hinduism (and vice versa). So, objections to one kind of thinking don't readily transfer to the other, it seems to me.

  10. I do agree with you on this point Nathan but of course our mutual understanding on this makes even more untenable the idea that religious views are so polymorphous as to be meaningless, which is what it seemed to me that Adam was implying in his original posting, but of course I may be wrong about that.

    The fact that we both sense that a typically Christian response is not likely to resonate with a typically Hindu one and vice versa at least suggests these respective beasts are not as chameleon-like as Adam suggests?

  11. Leigh Turner, at the Center for Bioethics, University of Minnestoa, has a few papers relevant to this discussion: Look under "Bioethics, Culture & Religion"

    And should anyone be interested, I have a bibliography for bioethics (10 pgs. over 200 titles). And I have a "companion" compilation: "Health--Law, Ethics, and Social Justice: A Basic Bibliography"


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