Appropriate methodologies for empirical bioethics: it's all relative

Bioethics. 2009 May;23(4):249-58. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01715.x.


In this article we distinguish between philosophical bioethics (PB), descriptive policy orientated bioethics (DPOB) and normative policy oriented bioethics (NPOB). We argue that finding an appropriate methodology for combining empirical data and moral theory depends on what the aims of the research endeavour are, and that, for the most part, this combination is only required for NPOB. After briefly discussing the debate around the is/ought problem, and suggesting that both sides of this debate are misunderstanding one another (i.e. one side treats it as a conceptual problem, whilst the other treats it as an empirical claim), we outline and defend a methodological approach to NPOB based on work we have carried out on a project exploring the normative foundations of paternal rights and responsibilities. We suggest that given the prominent role already played by moral intuition in moral theory, one appropriate way to integrate empirical data and philosophical bioethics is to utilize empirically gathered lay intuition as the foundation for ethical reasoning in NPOB. The method we propose involves a modification of a long-established tradition on non-intervention in qualitative data gathering, combined with a form of reflective equilibrium where the demands of theory and data are given equal weight and a pragmatic compromise reached.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Comprehension
  • Data Collection
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Empirical Research*
  • Empiricism
  • Ethical Analysis
  • Ethical Relativism*
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Fathers / psychology
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Intuition
  • Logic
  • Male
  • Morals
  • Paternal Behavior
  • Paternity
  • Principle-Based Ethics
  • Qualitative Research
  • Research Design*
  • Thinking