Why bioethics in a social science department?

L0033971 Wellcome polio vaccine

Ethics in general revolves around the fundamental questions of how we should act and how we should live.

Ethicists argue about our rights and responsibilities as individuals, our obligations towards others, and which acts are morally right or wrong. They also think about the societal structures and institutions that influence how we act as individuals, and how we can shape those structures in just and fair ways.

Bioethics is traditionally a branch of “applied ethics”, where moral philosophers apply their theories to ethical problems in medicine and bioscience. But in recent years, bioethics has become a thoroughly interdisciplinary endeavour and bioethical debates are held by philosophers, social scientists, lawyers, health professionals, biomedical researchers, policy-makers, and others.

Social scientists have a particular role to play in bioethical debates. They study bioethical questions and the context in which they arise, moral intuitions that people have in relation to bioethical issues, as well as how they reason about these issues. Social scientists also try to asses the implications of different ethical positions and critically evaluate the role that bioethicists now play in hospitals, research institutions, and policy contexts.

There is a real need for social scientists who can conduct rigorous empirical research and use their findings to advance bioethical debates and develop proposals for how to address bioethical controversies in practice.

This “empirical bioethics” approach motivates our research and teaching in the bioethics & society programme.

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