Philosophy, an ancient practice with modern appeal? The role of “big” questions in medical decision-making

Philosophy is not an antiquated subject of academic research. Far from it. Just ask Dr. Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby, Cullen Professor of Medical Ethics and associate director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. Last year, she wrote a seminal article, “The Place of Philosophy in Bioethics Today,” making the case that philosophy and philosophers still have a very important and meaningful role to play in contemporary bioethics. Now, she’s spearheaded the launch of the Philosophical Bioethics Hub a free and publicly available collection of educational resources (lectures, toolkits), research and events relating to important philosophical bioethics issues funded by the Greenwall Foundation. We sat down with her to delve into her work with this group and how it’s impacting the bioethics field and medical decision-making overall.

Q: How did this Hub concept come about and what do you hope to achieve?  

A: Dr. Baruch Brody, former director of our Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor, and Andrew Mellow, professor of humanities in the Department of Philosophy at Rice University, and I founded and taught a Philosophy and Bioethics Seminar Series for the Greenwall Foundation’s Faculty Scholars Program several years ago. Our goal was to teach articles that modeled good philosophical work but also had (or should have had) a tangible impact on clinical practice or policy in a particular area – for example, an article arguing that we should rethink brain death or rethink the way that organs are procured and allocated.

We reached out to leaders in the field of philosophy and bioethics to generate the initial list of topics and readings. We also taught Foundations sessions in ethical theories for bioethics, argument construction and how empirical (qualitative and quantitative) and normative (philosophical) bioethics can and should work together.

Michelle Groman, president of the Greenwall Foundation, is committed to expanding access to the foundation’s resources to the broader field of bioethics, and I am committed to expanding philosophical methods and ideas in the field. The idea of the Hub was born from that. We wanted to find a way to make the seminar materials more widely accessible to the field because the seminars were so fun – full of exciting ideas and great discussions.

There are 25 seminars (topics) available on the Hub, and we will keep it updated as the list grows. We hope that these will be a resource for scholars, reading groups, students/trainees, ethics committees – really anyone wanting to engage with these topics. Of course, the Hub goes beyond these resources and also includes lectures and events in philosophy and bioethics.

Q: The Hub is intended to capture a broad, global audience (it was created by partners including:  the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical EthicsGeorgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics and NYU’s Center for Bioethics). Tell us a bit about this and any regional/international differences you see or have discussed in terms of needs, growth areas and challenges.

A: Even though the original motivation for the Hub was to open the reach of the seminars, we knew that in order to go big and broad with our vision we had to create a “home” or community for this work and to partner with other leading centers in bioethics who are also committed to philosophical approaches to bioethics issues. Baylor College of Medicine (where I work) has had a long commitment to philosophical bioethics starting with our founding director, Dr. Baruch Brody. Other centers with similar commitments include the ones you mention above, so I reached out to them to partner on this Hub. We formed a consortium and worked together to share resources (publications from our centers’ faculty, events, calls for papers) in philosophical bioethics with the broader field. Julian Savulescu is the faculty lead partner from Oxford and also at National University of Singapore, Matthew Liao from NYU and Dan Sulmasy and Sean Aas from Georgetown. We hope that the Hub becomes a “go-to” place for those interested in philosophy and bioethics to find new ideas and work in philosophical bioethics or new ideas in philosophy ripe for application to bioethics.

Q: Now that the Hub has launched, what’s next? What additional materials do you hope to add to the site?

 A: We would love for the Hub to become more of an interactive community and possibly have “members” or people beyond our core group of faculty partners who can share ideas, papers and resources.

Q: More broadly, what is still needed to ensure meaningful integration of philosophy and bioethics? Where do you envision the interconnected fields going in the coming years?

A: Check out my video on why bioethics needs philosophy and read my article “The Place of Philosophy in Bioethics Today” where I go into detail on this. High-level though bioethics needs philosophers to “continue to challenge existing frameworks, develop new concepts and ultimately explore the deeper questions that continue to push the field forward.” Here are some topline ideas on what’s needed to keep the two fields richly connected:

  1. Champions from bioethics center directors and funders. showing a commitment to the value of philosophers and philosophical bioethics scholarship. They need to hire philosophers, support their time (at least some of it) to do philosophical bioethics and educate their promotion and tenure committees about the value and worth.


  1. Funders of bioethics research could aim to fund a certain percentage of normative/conceptual bioethics projects annually and bioethics funders could take a lens to empirical proposals and ask whether those projects could be funded elsewhere and give priority to projects that could not.


  1. Philosophers working in bioethics centers need to stay engaged in philosophy by attending philosophy talks and conferences and by establishing connections with the philosophy department in their institution or a neighboring one. We will need philosophers who can “translate” these concepts and ideas in a clear and practical context and bring them back to bioethics.


  1. Philosophers who work on bioethics issues and have their academic homes in philosophy departments need to do their part to realign with bioethics centers. They must resist the culture of turning inward and discussing practical and moral issues only amongst other philosophers.

By Clarice Jacobson, senior business strategy and development associate, Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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