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The Multiplicity of Bioethical Expertise in the Context of Secular Liberal Democracies


While the notion of bioethical expertise might raise a host of questions concerning moral authority it is nevertheless the case that bioethicists continue to advance well thought out, detailed and comprehensive arguments concerning the ethical implications of the biosciences and healthcare. Not to make use of such work or those who produce it when it comes to the work of government and the development of policies would seem misguided at best. Thus, in the light of existing analysis of scientific expertise and its proper contribution to democratic political processes, this essay explores the role expert bioethicists might legitimately play in the production of policy and broader public moral debates. However, given that ethics can shade into politics and, furthermore, does so in a way that is not the case for science and politics, the ethico-political limitations that constrains and constructs the exercise of bioethical expertise is examined. Particular attention is paid to the implications of this view when it comes to bioethical research predicated on religious perspectives in the context of public reason, the validity of which has recently been called into question. We conclude with the suggestion that, if they are to act as experts in political contexts, bioethicists cannot simply make expert contributions to policymaking processes, they should also acknowledge they are responsible for shaping the broader public moral discourses about science and medicine.

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    Whilst Collins and Evans prefer to use Wittgenstein’s phrase form of life, I prefer Winch’s mode of social life. It strikes me as more clearly admitting that the boundaries between the forms of life under discussion are not absolute and that individuals may inhabit multiples of modes of social life. Indeed it seems to me that any modern form of (human) life is constituted by multiple modes of social life. Collins and Evans would, I think, accept both of these points and, furthermore, are clear about the degree to which they are dependent on Winch’s view of Wittgenstein. Collins and Evans, Rethinking Expertise, 23; H.M. Collins, ‘Studies of Expertise and Experience’, Topoi, 2016, 1–11,; H.M. Collins, ‘The Core of Expertise’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 12, no. 2 (2012): 412–13,

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    Whilst the technical phase is presented as preceding the political phase, it seems both undeniable and theoretically unproblematic that in the context of actually developing a policy, we often have occasion to reenter the technical phase in order to seek out further expert testimony before returning to a political phase.

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    The point here is that whilst the overarching political system may be democratic, whilst particular parties may be organized along (more or less) democratic lines, and whilst there maybe various points in the process of governing that one can point to as democratic, certain practices entailed by the actual business of government are political in the pragmatic sense of the word. Consider a vote that takes place in the UK’s main political chamber, The House of Commons. Such events are part of and reflect the UKs democratic structure. However, they are also deeply partisan; MPs largely voting along party line and, particularly in cases where the vote is likely to be close, being pressured by party whips to ensure that they do so. Such pressure may include a degree of horse-trading regarding future votes, bills, and debate time.

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    I say ideally as, whilst both are possible, slipping from an ethical discourse into a political exchange seems easier than slipping from a scientific discourse into a political debate. Certainly ethical debates seem more proximate to political debates than is the case for scientific debates. This may, however, be a misguided assumption.

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    Like any other culture or intellectual field bioethics is not a uniform phenomena but contains a certain level of diversity. Similarly it is open to change and development. Thus, the question of what bioethics is cannot be fully settled. Nevertheless, the field has sufficient unity to bear the name bioethics, something that reflects the unity or, at least, (inter)relatedness of its constitutive practices and those that pursue them. Interestingly, Schuklenk’s ruling about the place of religious thought in Developing World Bioethics can be understood in terms of such work, and those that produce it, being seen as incompatible with bioethics as a mode of social life. Of religious ethics being something other than bioethics, regardless of the questions being addressed. See footnote 6 and comments elsewhere in this essay.

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    Stated more clearly, my point is that we should not rule out the possibility that such individuals will draw on their scientific expertise in some way other than to reinterpret or revise expert testimony provided in the technical phase. For example, the politician who is understood to have some level of scientific expertise will find that it can be useful exercised as a rhetorical, which is to say political, tool. It may also mean that contributions made in the technical phase are less likely to be misunderstood as, one would hope, an individual with scientific expertise acting within the political phase will be able to highlight and rectify any (good faith) misunderstandings, albeit by drawing attention to and reinforcing the substance of contributions made in the technical phase.

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    As opposed to the application of theories belonging to moral philosophy to substantive ethical problems. Whilst this is what label applied ethics might appear imply, it is actually a relatively uncommon feature of the literature. Applied ethics should be taken as a particular approach or set of approaches to ethical argument, all of which share a kind of family resemblance.

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Emmerich, N. The Multiplicity of Bioethical Expertise in the Context of Secular Liberal Democracies. Soc 56, 481–488 (2019).

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  • Expertise
  • Democracy
  • Politics
  • Policy-making
  • Morality
  • Ethics
  • Biosciences