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When Philosophy Meets Politics

We’ll wager that, unless you happen to be a practicing bioethicist, you’d never heard of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel six weeks ago. But now Emanuel, the director of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, finds himself labeled a "deadly doctor" by Betsy McCaughey in an opinion piece in the New York Post. And controversial conservative pundit Ann Coulter recently proclaimed that "Zeke Emanuel is on my death list."

We debunked McCaughey’s charges in an Ask FactCheck item we posted today. The short version is that McCaughey has quoted a number of passages badly out of context and twisted their meaning.

We’re not here to rule on the merits of Emanuel’s philosophical arguments, nor are we looking to get into the business of interpreting ethics papers. We’ll leave both those tasks to you and to (other) philosophers. But the Emanuel incident raises a more general point: When you interpret ethics texts, you have to be really cautious.

Indeed, Emanuel is hardly the first philosopher to find himself in hot water for views that are taken out of context. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (whose views about doctor-assisted suicide are controversial even in their proper context) is a frequent victim of the phenomenon. Rumors about 18th century philosopher David Hume kept him from ever obtaining an academic post. And, of course, no one can really top Socrates, who was actually executed (a fate that Coulter says she’d welcome for Emanuel) for views that he arguably didn’t really hold.

As practiced as an academic discipline, ethics is devoted to talking about really difficult cases. A lot of times, those cases involve death, in some form or another. Entire courses, both undergraduate and graduate, revolve around questions of life and death. That’s not because academic ethicists are all terribly morbid, a charge I heard from more than one of my students when I taught introductory courses in philosophy and ethics. It’s because that’s where the hard questions are.

There is actually widespread agreement about what’s ethical and what’s not. Everyone pretty much agrees, for example, that murder is wrong. But we don’t always agree about whether a particular act of killing counts as a murder. What if it’s self defense? What if it’s an enemy soldier during war? Or a late-term abortion? Or if the victim is a farm animal? People have different views about these questions. And so that is where academic ethics focuses — on the areas of disagreement.

Part of the way that ethicists attempt to resolve those problems is by engaging in thought experiments. These are just what they sound like: We make up some scenario (often a pretty unlikely one) and then use that scenario as a way of getting clear on abstract ideas. In my own introductory courses, for example, I would ask students to suppose that they lost a limb to a drunk driver and then ask them how much money they would want as compensation. I would then ask students whether they would take the same sum to let me cut off that same limb.

Now the point here isn’t that I have a particular desire to cut off people’s limbs, nor is it that I think students ought to take my deal. I don’t, and they probably don’t either. Rather, the point was to help students think seriously about whether there can be trade-offs between pain and money. Your answer to that question should heavily influence your views about things like tort reform (should there be compensation for pain and suffering?) and punishment (should criminals pay monetary compensation to their victims in lieu of going to prison?).

Of course, if you were to take my offer out of context, it would look pretty alarming. In fact, I’m waiting to see how long it takes before we get a chain e-mail alleging that the Jigsaw Killer is alive and working at FactCheck.org. If you read all the way through, though, you see that that’s not at all what was going on. Pointing out what a certain view might entail is an important part of what ethicists do. Which means that you have to read ethics papers carefully in order to determine when you’re seeing someone’s actual position and when you’re seeing that person articulate some possible conclusions.

And if this is true for ethics in general, it’s especially true for bioethics, where the subject matter inevitably involves extremely sensitive issues that are, literally, about life and death.