British bioethicist Michael Reiss explores whether or not ethical discussions have to end in agreement.
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Do ethical discussions always have to end in agreement? Why or why not?
Michael Reiss: If one thinks of societies in general, one might say, Well does one have to reach consensus?
And I want to make a rather precise point here. I think for a society that is going to cohere and work together, you don’t of course need everyone to have the same ethical viewpoints, that would be to just have a group autometer. But you probably need people to be able to respect one another, or - to be very honest, avoid one another - if they have very different ethical viewpoints.
Nevertheless, in real life, quite often one has to end up making a decision and often a group of people has to come to some way forward. Fortunately, I find that quite often you reach the same conclusion. This is true, for example, in quite a lot of medical ethics.
Now it's not always true because, for example, if one takes the Roman Catholic tradition, a new product of conception - a sperm and egg - is accorded a very high moral status. Whereas most people who haven’t got a Roman Catholic way of seeing the world wouldn’t think that that is the case. So there are examples where there are differences.
And then it gets more difficult to take them into account and it would need a lot more than a few minutes to go into how that is done in detail. But, for example, you can allow people to make their own decisions depending on their own frameworks. And in the hospital setting sometimes you allow individual doctors and nurses to choose whether or not they are going to participate in certain procedures - the classic example, of course, being abortion. And most hospitals now are sensitive to the wishes of nurses and doctors and wouldn’t require them to participate in an abortion if the nurses and doctors said it was against their own ethical standpoint.
- 20 November 2007
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- The University of Waikato