Course Description and Powerpoint - Bioethics (Ben Hurlbut, Arizona State University)

Course Description and Powerpoint - Bioethics (Ben Hurlbut, Arizona State University)



Ben Hurlbut (with Jason Scott Robert)

School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

This course offers students an introduction to bioscience ethics, politics and law through four detailed historical cases studies.  These case studies run in parallel, and track the dramatic transformation of the biomedical and life sciences of the second half of the 20th century. Through examination of primary historical documents, guided by lectures, students see directly how difficult values-questions emerged around a wide range of scientific and technological projects, generating new articulations of human rights, human nature and the public good. The approach of the course is simultaneously historical and philosophical—and is co-taught by an historian and a philosopher. For each unit, we examine the historical development of new technologies and new social arrangements together, examining not only how and why new ethical problems emerged, but also what philosophical, social, legal, and institutional responses were made to them. 

The four case studies are: human subjects research, from WWII to global pharma research and patient social movements; genetic engineering, from recombinant DNA through GMOs to synthetic biology; the definition of death; and in vitro fertilization and human embryo research.  These cases are selected to raise very different sorts of problems.  Human subjects research, for instance, on the surface raises what appear to be purely “bioethical” questions, whereas genetic engineering seems more like a problem of technical risk assessment.  By demonstrating the epistemic dimensions of human subjects research and the normative/political dimensions of risk assessment, as well as the novel institutional arrangements that codified specific approaches to (and constructions of) the problems, students begin to gain a sense of the necessarily complex relationships between the heterogeneous institutions, forms of expertise and loci of politics in each of these cases.  While each case speaks for itself, we also link them together, highlighting crosscutting issues that transcend the cases themselves.  The strategy of the course is to stay very close to the historical materials while at once narrating them such that larger issues become apparent over time.  There is no formal introduction to ethical theory or methods; rather, it is woven into the case studies.  Students leave the course with a grasp of the real-world problems that have come to be lumped under the heading of “bioethics,” and a detailed knowledge of how some important problems—and resolutions—came to be. 

The majority of our students are seeking bachelors of science degrees.  Very few have any prior background in history or philosophy, and for many this will be their only formal encounter with matters of “science and society.”  The primary challenge of the course is to ensure that students leave with a “big picture” view that transcends the details of the cases and allows them to recognize and think about problems in other, related areas.  Though this requires quite a lot of careful narration in lectures, it seems to work out.  The main downside to this structure is that students are not exposed to “bioethics” as such; that is, they do not learn the ways of thinking—or even to recognize the ways of thinking—that have come to dominate professional bioethics.  If they take a bioethics course in medical school, for instance, it will likely be unrecognizable to them.  In my view this is both a strength and a weakness of the class.  Students get a far more robust and far less mediated picture of “biopolitics” than they would through a conventional bioethics approach—with solid empirical grounding, attending to more than normative abstractions, etc.  In this sense it is more of a science studies class than a traditional bioethics class.