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 Colleges bio-ethics course
this mid-March morning to discuss the oft-overlooked role of patients
religious beliefs in medical care. Right now hes covering Ezekiel
Emmanuels four models of the doctor-patient relationship.
Good, youve read it, he responds
when a chemistry major rattles off three of the four. Hes even more
pleased when another student identifies the Greek root word in one of
Do you know how few medical students I get who know
the Latin or Greek, Thomason says. Its really great
to be at a liberal arts college.
A moment later, hes 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 mantrafour principles
cited by ethicists as a practical basis for discussions of bio-ethics.
Do you know these?
Good. Have you talked about any alternatives to this principalist
Weve talked about utilitarianism, a philosophy major
Okay, the consequentialist theories. Whats important there?
Weighing costs and benefits.
Whats 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, hes
even more encouraged by the fact that undergraduates11 science majors
and 7 pre-med students among themare 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, youre 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 Thomasons
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.
IVE 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 Huxleys Brave
New World and a film version of Vonneguts Fortitudeways
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 Selveratnums
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 wasnt 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 boardall
the way from taking heroic measures in preserving life even against a
patients 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, thats 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 semesterto 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 thats good philosophical practice.
In their evaluations of the class, several said that this was the
hardest writing theyd ever donethat the reading was hard,
because it made them think. For some of them, thinking things through
this way was brand new.
It didnt 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 didnt say anything about that,
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 hed been given and
Hughes acknowledges several things shell do differently when she
next offers the course. Shed 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 couldnt answer with sufficient
depth. I could see having a geneticist teach sections, and other biologists,
Hughes got a tantalizing taste of what such team-teaching could be like
when she sat in on Selveratnums 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 dont think anyone felt settled. I dont
think anyone left saying I have the answer now and I dont
ever have to think about this problem again. Philosophy doesnt
do that for you, necessarily. If youre a careful philosophical thinker,
youll 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 technologyall 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 doesnt 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 dont have parents and are waiting for adoption?
Why are we so intent on having genetically related children that wed
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 thiswith only a 40% success ratewhen 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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