Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 41-53

First online:

What is the role of empirical research in bioethical reflection and decision-making? An ethical analysis

  • Pascal BorryAffiliated withCenter for Biomedical Ethics and Law, K.U. Leuven
  • , Paul SchotsmansAffiliated withCenter for Biomedical Ethics and Law, K.U. Leuven
  • , Kris DierickxAffiliated withCenter for Biomedical Ethics and Law, K.U. Leuven

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The field of bioethics is increasingly coming into contact with empirical research findings. In this article, we ask what role empirical research can play in the process of ethical clarification and decision-making. Ethical reflection almost always proceeds in three steps: the description of the moral question,the assessment of the moral question and the evaluation of the decision-making. Empirical research can contribute to each step of this process. In the description of the moral object, first of all, empirical research has a role to play in the description of morally relevant facts. It plays a role in answering the “reality-revealing questions” (what, why,how, who, where and when), in assessing the consequences and in proposing alternative courses of action. Secondly, empirical research plays a role in assessing the moral question. It must be acknowledged that research possesses “the normative power of the factual,” which can also become normative by suppressing other norms. However, inductive normativity should always be balanced out by a deductive form of normativity. Thirdly, empirical research also has a role to play in evaluating the decision-making process. It can rule out certain moral choices by pointing out the occurrence of certain unexpected consequences or effects. It can also be useful, however, as a sociology of bioethics in which the discipline of bioethics itself becomes an object of research.

empirical ethics empirical research ethical methodology medical ethics meta-ethics