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The Ethics Laboratory: A Dialogical Practice for Interdisciplinary Moral Deliberation

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Recent advancements in therapeutic and diagnostic medicine, along with the creation of large biobanks and methods for monitoring health technologies, have improved the prospects for preventing, treating, and curing illness. These same advancements, however, give rise to a plethora of ethical questions concerning good decision-making and best action. These ethical questions engage policymakers, practitioners, scientists, and researchers from a variety of fields in different ways. Collaborations between professionals in the medical and health sciences and the social sciences and humanities often take an asymmetrical form, as when social scientists use ethnographic approaches to study the moral issues and practices of physicians. The ethics laboratory described in this article is a cross-sectoral and inter-disciplinary forum for collaborative investigation on important moral topics. It offers an experimental way of unpacking implied assumptions, underlying values, and comparable notions from different professional healthcare fields. The aim of this article is to present the ethics laboratory’s methodology. The article offers a model and a hermeneutical framework that rests on a dialogical approach to ethical questions. The model and the framework derive from a Danish research project, Personalized Medicine in the Welfare State. This article uses personalized medicine as a point of reference, though it offers an argument for the applicability of the model more broadly.

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  1. The ethics laboratory was developed within the research project Personalized Medicine in the Welfare State (MeInWe). The project is made possible by the Carlsberg Foundation’s Semper Ardens grant in 2017 awarded to Professor and PI Mette Nordahl Svendsen from the University of Copenhagen. The research team consists of 14 scholars from a variety of academic fields: anthropology, sociology, public health, biology, law and philosophy. The project is a 5-year study of the ethical, regulatory and organizational challenges embedded in strategies of tailoring diagnosis and treatment to individual genetic variability. See

  2. Articles based on the empirical data gathered from our ethics laboratories are in process.

  3. The ethics laboratory is different from Mattingly’s moral laboratories where musings on the morally good occur spontaneously and in ordinary places like the street or in the home (see Mattingly, 2014). Though distinct, the ethics laboratories belong, more accurately, to the kind of moral laboratories described in the article Facing Life after Facing Death: The Moral Occasion of Cancer (Knox, 2016). In the latter kind, the moral dialogue is planned and structured, and moral questions are carefully reflected on.

  4. Ethnographic research on the ethics laboratory was carried out in MeInWe. We saw the ethics laboratories as opportunities to study the inter-sectorial and inter-disciplinary conversations. This also complemented the purpose of our research topic, allowing us to study the concept and practice of the ethics laboratory itself.

  5. “Prudence [i.e., phronènis] is not concerned with the universals alone but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.” Aristotle (2012, sec. 1141b15–17).

  6. A neo-Socratic dialogue practice, based on Socratic midwifery and maieutics, was developed by Leonard Nelson and Gustave Heckmann. The dialogic practice within the ethics laboratory partly builds on their work.

  7. Descriptive statements are not moral judgments, i.e., they make no claim on whether or not a specific action is moral; they solely intend to assert that such and such a behavior takes place. Normative ethics studies the moral reasoning behind claims and judgments to test validity, provide justification, and give an evaluative account of why something should be this or that way.


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The author wishes to thank her colleagues in the MeInWe team for their insightful comments on an earlier version of the article.


This work was supported by a Semper Ardens Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation [Grant Number CF17-0016 (PI Mette N. Svendsen)].

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Correspondence to Jeanette Bresson Ladegaard Knox.

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Knox, J.B.L. The Ethics Laboratory: A Dialogical Practice for Interdisciplinary Moral Deliberation. HEC Forum 35, 185–199 (2023).

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