I wanted our students to gain the tools to have integrity in their lives, and my sense of what is required for integrity is careful thinking, but in conversation with others. In class, and outside of class, I wanted these guys to have the tools to engage in conversation about these issues.”

Professor Cheryl Hughes







Senior Shane Fimbel discusses career aspirations with guest lecturer Clayton Thomason.

“We had the chance to develop positions that we can support and articulate, and not just on one issue, but to aim for consistency across the range of issues.

So, if I am opposed to physician-assisted suicide, I also have a way of dealing with people who are at the end of their lives and suffering deeply. I have a position about how I will deal with technology that can allow a human body to persist after the person is no longer conscious.

We were striving to develop consistent positions."



Summer/Fall 2002

Engaging the Issues

Students don an age-old virtue to tackle the ethical questions posed by 21st century technology.

by Steve Charles

The responsiveness of Wabash students during 8 a.m. winter term classes is rarely the stuff of College magazine articles, but guest lecturer Clayton Thomason seems impressed with the 14 bedraggled young men in Center 304. The Michigan State University professor of spirituality and ethics in medicine is visiting the College’s bio-ethics course this mid-March morning to discuss the oft-overlooked role of patient’s religious beliefs in medical care. Right now he’s covering Ezekiel Emmanuel’s four models of the doctor-patient relationship.

“Good, you’ve read it,” he responds when a chemistry major rattles off three of the four. He’s even more pleased when another student identifies the Greek root word in one of the models.

“Do you know how few medical students I get who know the Latin or Greek,” Thomason says. “It’s really great to be at a liberal arts college.”

A moment later, he’s quoting theologian Martin Marty:

“The religious voice on bio-ethical issues is grounded in many resources in addition to reason: in intuition, in memory, in tradition, in community, experience, hope, and affection and dimensions of spiritual and religious experiences.’ So Marty believes that bringing religion into bio-ethics ‘thickens the conversation.’”

The focus shifts to “the Georgetown mantra“—four principles cited by ethicists as a practical basis for discussions of bio-ethics.

“Do you know these?”

Students nod.

“Good. Have you talked about any alternatives to this principalist approach?”

“We’ve talked about utilitarianism,” a philosophy major offers.

“Okay, the consequentialist theories. What’s important there?”

“Weighing costs and benefits.”

“What’s an alternative approach?

"Deontology," a senior says.

“Right. Oh, this is great; you guys really know this stuff!”

But as pleased as Thomason is with the students’ preparation, he’s even more encouraged by the fact that undergraduates—11 science majors and 7 pre-med students among them—are coming to terms with these issues so early in their careers.

“In the next eight years and beyond, as medical school chews you up and spits you out, you’re going to be making many choices, ethical choices,” the professor, minister, and lawyer tells the class. “It is important that you learn to think through those decisions, because they will affect your future and the doctor you will become.”

Wabash Associate Professor of Philosophy Cheryl Hughes, who created the bio-ethics course during her sabbatical last year, shares Thomason’s convictions.

“The students heading for medical school thought it was important to begin dealing with these issues now,” she says. “All of them realized how much these issues are in the news, how much they affect contemporary debates, law, legislation, and their personal lives.”

But Hughes insists that coming to terms with bio-ethics is a necessity for all Wabash students.

“These are life issues, and they affect people who are going to be leaders, regardless of their vocation. Our students need to be able to consider these issues thoughtfully, to be able to articulate their positions and have conversations about them with others in their community.”
So Hughes endeavored to give her students the intellectual tools to engage the most complex contemporary ethical conundrums of a young 21st century with the age-old virtue of integrity.

“I’VE WANTED TO DO A BIOETHICS COURSE SINCE I GOT HERE,” the nine-year faculty veteran explained as she looked over student evaluations in May. A National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar in 2000 provided additional inspiration and guidance, and her sabbatical last year provided the time necessary to develop the course. The professor used those months reading the literature, researching issues, talking with experts and teachers in the field, arranging guest speakers for the class, and locating an excellent text and other resources. She also sorted through appropriate films and fiction, settling on Huxley’s Brave New World and a film version of Vonnegut’s Fortitude—ways of engaging students’ imaginations to enhance their personal and emotional understanding of the issues.
And she brushed up on her science, sitting in on Professor Shivi Selveratnum’s Human Biology course.

“My understanding of biology was 20 years old,” Hughes said. “I had some catching up to do!”

The result of this preparation was a course that brought science, philosophy, literature, and history to bear on the most challenging issues of the day, from abortion and cloning to patient autonomy and euthanasia.

But simply examining current bio-ethical issues wasn’t sole or ultimate aim of the course.
“We read Brave New World right before we did the section on reproductive technology, and then we saw a PBS Frontline documentary on current reproductive technologies,” Hughes recalled. “The book raises interesting questions about justice, human freedom, and the sorts of things I wanted them to think about, rather than just looking at the technologies and asking, ‘Can we use it, should we use it?’ I wanted them to go deeper than that.”

Digging deeper was driven by class discussion. Hughes recalled how students examined their positions on euthanasia by posting a continuum on the board—all the way from taking heroic measures in preserving life even against a patient’s wishes to involuntary euthanasia.

“We figured out where each of us would draw the line, and why.”

“Of course, ‘why’ is my favorite question,” Hughes said with an enthusiastic smile. “You have to have a reason for your position. You can say, ‘that’s my own personal belief.’ But in order to have a conversation in a democracy, you have to be able to articulate reasons that other people can accept, as well.

“That was our struggle for the whole semester—to develop articulate positions with good supporting reasons and answers to your opponent. The writing required them to take a position, defend that position, and answer objections. They had to go looking for the best argument they could find on the other side, and that’s good philosophical practice.

“In their evaluations of the class, several said that this was the hardest writing they’d ever done—that the reading was hard, because it made them think. For some of them, thinking things through this way was brand new.”

It didn’t take students long to apply that new way of thinking outside of the classroom. When senior chemistry major Brad Berkemeier attended a lecture by nationally known structural biologist David Gorenstein, he was disappointed that the speaker failed to discuss the ethical problems inherent in his work.

“The talk was all about how exciting the technology was and what we could do with it,” Hughes recalled. “Ethical problems gave rise to the work he was doing, but he didn’t say anything about that, either.

“So Brad wrote an e-mail message to Gorenstein asking him to say something about what he thought the ethical problems were regarding his topic. He followed through. He took the tools he’d been given and used them.”

Hughes acknowledges several things she’ll do differently when she next offers the course. She’d like to involve Wabash alumni as guest speakers. She thinks bio-ethics could be effectively team-taught, as well.

“Having a scientist in the room would have enhanced learning; there were some science questions I simply couldn’t answer with sufficient depth. I could see having a geneticist teach sections, and other biologists, too.”

Hughes got a tantalizing taste of what such team-teaching could be like when she sat in on Selveratnum’s Human Biology course.

“There were times when ethical issues came up in the class, and Shivi would ask me to assist in that part of the discussion,” Hughes said. “It made for illuminating discussion, having a biologist and philosopher coming at the same material, instructive for us and the students.”

But Hughes believes the bio-ethics class was a success on its maiden voyage.

“I wanted our students to gain the tools to have integrity in their lives, and my sense of what is required for integrity is careful thinking, but in conversation with others. In class, and outside of class, I wanted these guys to have the tools to engage in conversation about these issues.

“In the end, I don’t think anyone felt settled. I don’t think anyone left saying ‘I have the answer now and I don’t ever have to think about this problem again.’ Philosophy doesn’t do that for you, necessarily. If you’re a careful philosophical thinker, you’ll always be open to the new question that makes you re-think your position, that makes you need to think about it in a different way.”

Hughes cited a final example:

“We were talking about reproductive technology—all the incredible things we can do now to assist people to bear children,” Hughes recalled. “You can easily get hooked by the technology, and if you focus on that, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to worry about.
“But one of my students stepped back and said, ‘Wait a minute. Why are we spending so much money on this technology when there are so many children who don’t have parents and are waiting for adoption? Why are we so intent on having genetically related children that we’d be willing to clone ourselves rather than adopt?

“These are philosophical questions about the nature of reproduction: what it means to have a child; why we value children? why is there still a stigma attached to adoption?

“Then the guy next to him asked, ‘Why are we spending so much on this—with only a 40% success rate—when only the very wealthy can afford the technology? Why are we doing that instead of using the money to provide good prenatal care around the world?’

“It was a really important moment. Rather than be seduced by the technology, they had learned to back up and ask the important first questions.”


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