The epistemic costs of compromise in bioethics

Bioethics 32 (2):111-118 (2018)

Authors
Thomas Douglas
Oxford University
Abstract
Bioethicists sometimes defend compromise positions, particularly when they enter debates on applied topics that have traditionally been highly polarised, such as those regarding abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. However, defending compromise positions is often regarded with a degree of disdain. Many are intuitively attracted to the view that it is almost always problematic to defend compromise positions, in the sense that we have a significant moral reason not to do so. In this paper, we consider whether this common sense view can be given a principled basis. We first show how existing explanations for the problematic nature of compromise fall short of vindicating the common sense view, before offering our own explanation, which, we claim, comes closer to vindicating that view. We argue that defending a compromise will typically have two epistemic costs: it will corrupt attempts to use the claims of ethicists as testimonial evidence, and it will undermine standards that are important to making epistemic progress in ethics. We end by suggesting that the epistemic costs of compromise could be reduced by introducing a stronger separation between ethical debate aimed at fulfilling the epistemic role of ethics, and ethical debate that aims to directly produce good policy or practice.
Keywords compromise  deception  epistemic standards  hypocrisy  integrity  middle ground position  policy advice
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DOI 10.1111/bioe.12418
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