Ethics and Metaphysics?



At The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity’s 14th annual conference last summer—‘The Bioethics Nexus: The Future of Healthcare, Science, and Humanity’—world renowned Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga gave a plenary address entitled, “Science and Religion: Why Does the Debate Continue?”[1] In his address he reflected on some of the misguided assumptions on the part of both scientists and people of faith that serve to perpetuate this ongoing debate. While his talk was quite interesting and helpful, perhaps a question even more germane to the state of bioethics today would have been: ‘Bioethics and Metaphysics: Why Does the Avoidance Continue?’

Indeed, after a later address at the same conference, another renowned senior philosopher in attendance, George Mavrodes, asked the presenter a question about his philosophical understanding of personhood. Based on the quizzical countenances of some of the attendees, one might have gathered that Mavrodes was speaking a different language! Afterward, when some of the attendees approached Mavrodes about his question, a friendly but animated discussion ensued. Finally, when the discussion came to a standstill, one of the attendees asked Dr. Mavrodes what exactly he was a doctor of. When Mavrodes responded, ‘Philosophy,’ the debater threw up his arms and exasperatedly exclaimed, ‘No wonder!’ And that was the end of the discussion.[2]

Certainly the reasons medical professionals and professional philosophers sometimes talk past each other are many. Due to the highly technical nature of both fields, one might expect that mutual understanding would be difficult to achieve. Perhaps one reason (please forgive the oversimplification here), is that medical professionals deal with concrete people and diseases, while philosophers often seem more interested in abstract propositions and ideas. On the other hand, perhaps some of these abstract ideas may have direct relevance to actual people. At least philosophers seem to think so, or else they probably would not be doing philosophy. (I hear the remuneration for professional philosophers these days is not what one might think!)

At Ethics and Medicine, our mission is ‘to reassert the Hippocratic consensus in medicine as seen through the lens of the Judeo-Christian tradition . . .’ It is thus our conviction that metaphysical questions—such as one’s definition of personhood—are of critical importance to how we respond to the many ethical issues that arise in the field of medicine. . . .

It is our hope that by reflecting on these important metaphysical issues, you may become better equipped to deal with the increasingly complex challenges facing the field of bioethics today. And if along the way you become a closet philosopher, we promise not let the secret out.



[1] Delivered on July 12, 2007 at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois.

[2] This conversation was recounted to me in personal conversation with two different eye-witnesses.


Editor's Note: This editorial has been adapted from an editorial that appeared in Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics 24, no. 2 (2008) and is used with permission.


Podcast Episode: