The “shazam” moment in empirical bioethics

Prof. Angus Dawson1

1Sydney Health Ethics, University Of Sydney, Australia

For the purposes of this talk I assume that in bioethics we wish to establish a substantive ethical conclusion about some issue in health or the life sciences. In the light of this I will explore how we can and should conceptualise the interface between the empirical and the normative in empirical bioethics. What, exactly, is the basis of this apparently magical “shazam” moment? First, I will explain why my question is not a version of the traditional is/ought (logical) objection deriving from Hume, and I will suggest how anyone working in empirical bioethics can sidestep that problem (if they are willing to accept the relevant commitments). Second, I will, instead, focus on what I term the question of methodological intention: a requirement for greater clarity about what role any empirical component plays in any bioethical project. This is important because there are various very different functions for the empirical and the normative. For example, a non-exhaustive list might include the following:

  • Hypothesis Testing: where a prior normative hypothesis is tested against the ‘real world’ through empirical work.
  • Explanation: where normative concepts or theories are used to explain some empirical findings.
  • Deliberation: where it is assumed that any empirical findings about the public’s views have determinative normative weight in policy choices.
  • Understanding: where empirical work allows greater insight into relevant complexity or context as a means of informing normative argument.
  • Coherence: where the empirical and normative are in ‘reflective equilibrium’.

I will explore the way that the ‘shazam’ moment is structuring in each case. My point is not to suggest that any of these approaches are at least prima facie problematic, just that they are very different tasks. Each one involves a prior set of substantive commitments and these should be articulated and defended.


Angus Dawson is Professor of Bioethics and Director of Sydney Health Ethics at the University of Sydney. His main research interests are in public health ethics, global ethics and research ethics.

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