The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright 2022-01-07T16:02:47.108Z


Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-11T14:26:00.792Z · EA · GW

So, I didn't do a very good job sticking to this statement. I'm still new to the forum format, and getting a much bigger response than I had expected. I've therefore decided to just make a clean break and hold myself to it. Feel free to continue interacting in the comments, I will read all of the comments unless they really pile up, but I'll stop responding unless one of them is a direct question or something like that. If I figure out a way to, I'll pin this message at the top of the comments section.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-11T14:23:03.343Z · EA · GW

Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-11T14:16:59.749Z · EA · GW

This is a possibility, admittedly my evidence doesn't say much about the old state of the field. If so I think that would be a good reason for optimism, so I kind of hope you're right. That said, I think some of the state of research has to come down to unintentional consequences as well. The Belmont Report is too strict even as intended for instance, but I think a great deal of its harm comes from the vagueness of the guidelines it inspired.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-11T14:00:59.776Z · EA · GW

On the one hand I agree that that piece of evidence is my least systematic and convincing. I mostly raise it because of Willy in the world asking for a bioethicist petition on challenge trials and Matt Yglesias citing the 1Day Sooner letter in claiming that bioethicists seem out of step with regular philosophers. In this context I thought it made sense to dig a little bit into the contents of the letter. On the other hand, I do think that Sebo and Singer and McMahan and Savulescu (and for that matter Jessica Flanigan and Anders Sandberg and others) should count towards the bioethicist scorecard, and if some bioethicists are consequentialist/EA-affiliated, that doesn't mean they are in some separate category, it should instead undermine some of the stereotypes.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-11T00:53:31.368Z · EA · GW

This is all fair, and I appreciate the response. I don’t mean to say that you and other critics overall have bad takes on the issue of research oversight, I agree with most of the criticisms, and think they are important. It’s just on the topic of bioethicists specifically that I find a good deal of the discourse weird (I should also add that there are plenty of particular bioethicists, like Leon Kass, who are worthy of the criticisms, I just don’t think they are representative, or the root of the problem).

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-10T19:27:52.043Z · EA · GW

This is an interesting question, and you’re right that I don’t really address it directly. That said, I’m not sure I totally understand how your criticism applies to the issue of whether bioethics as a field is worthwhile. Are you saying that the IRB system is bad for research, and if it weren’t for the presence of bioethicists this system wouldn’t be in place? As I said in the piece, I’m not an expert on IRBs myself, but this seems implausible to me. The IRB system is in place because of unclear and excessive guidelines, and the strong risk of liability they bring, if bioethicists disappeared, I just don’t think it would solve that. Indeed I expect IRBs themselves would march on, populated by lawyers or doctors or applied ethicists we don’t call bioethicists.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-09T21:31:25.666Z · EA · GW

I think there's a ton to criticize in the institutions, don't get me wrong, I just disagree that that's how lots of the criticisms I see come off.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T15:22:08.965Z · EA · GW

Quick PSA, I’m interacting in the comments pretty actively right now. If the comments section keeps growing, I will slow down on this in a bit. Please don’t think it means I don’t think your comment is worth some interaction as well, I’ve been very happy with the comments I’ve been getting so far! I just wanted to make quick note of this since I’m pretty new to the forum and a bit self-conscious about how I engage.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T15:17:54.099Z · EA · GW

The cases do seem somewhat different to me as well, but I don’t think this necessarily contradicts my thesis. If the key criticism is something like “bioethicists should make their actual leanings more well-known and influential” I would agree with that. It’s just this seems more modest and less unique than many of the criticisms I have seen.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T15:14:40.136Z · EA · GW

This is interesting, and I’m glad to see some pushback in the direction of the stronger thesis as well. Again, the evidence I have seen leans the other way and I have not seen evidence I consider as strong in the anti-bioethics direction, but each piece of my evidence is also fairly weak on its own. A first pass at these cases leaves me with the following reactions (the numbers don’t correspond to each of your numbered points, they’re just there for organization):

  1. My evidence is, I think, pretty anglocentric, and may leave room for the situation to be different in for instance France and Austria. It is my (not very well researched) impression that countries with a history of Nazi occupation are more bioconservative on average for instance. I was also disappointed to learn when looking into this, that surrogacy is actually banned throughout a large part of continental Europe: and even if those selected for these committees are sincere and not just bureaucrats, there may be a selection effect for them to have views closer to the government than the public.
  2. As I said, my evidence isn’t overwhelming, but with the exception of the 1Day Sooner letter, I tried to make it fairly systematic. I would expect some of these decisions to get through regardless of whether they are on average the more common types of judgements, so I don’t want to assume too much based on them without a better understanding of how each example was chosen. Leon Kass for instance, mentioned earlier, is a parody of bioconservativism in many ways, but he was highly influential on the Bush administration’s recommendations, and that is in America, where my samples are most relevant.
  3. On the point of recommending not paying for challenge trials, I think this is in part due to an unfortunate asymmetry. There are some bioethicists who are concerned about vague notions of “exploitation” and don’t think participants should be payed, and those who think it is more ethical to pay them, in my experience, still think it is alright to hold challenge trials if you don’t pay the participants (denying this would entail overt paternalism, which in this context I have run into few defenders of). Therefore challenge trials are often recommended without payment for coalitional reasons, from my experience.
Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T01:52:50.792Z · EA · GW
  1. I appreciate it!
  2. I hope the public is generally receptive to EA-style thinking, and there is some indication of it at least. I do still worry that when it comes to appeal-to-authority type reasoning, the public will find "bioethicists" more trustworthy, even if they are relatively disposed to agreeing with our ideas. I could be wrong on that, it is a fairly speculative harm.
Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T00:23:12.959Z · EA · GW

I agree, the Bensinger piece was very helpful, and wasn't in my first draft. Credit to Applied Divinity Studies for linking me to something that linked to it, or I wouldn't have found it at all.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T00:20:04.739Z · EA · GW

I really appreciate you replying to this, and I read (I think) all of your blog posts on IRBs, and they are all to the best of my knowledge informative and accurate. My point is much more just that "bioethicists" seem to be a bad way of framing a bunch of these issues. As for:

  1. I think this is correct, but I still think it can be useful to try to get along, all else equal. As I briefly mentioned, it is possible that if bioethicists had better priorities they could make some indirect difference at least, and this is probably the best criticism of the field as it is now. Aside from this, I guess I just also don't like it when a group gets what I see as unfair criticism, even if it doesn't backfire. I focused more on that issue in the first draft, but wound up cutting it for brevity.
  2. War is maybe a bit of a dramatic word for it, but I guess what I more mean is if it comes down to a very public "it's us or them" between EAs and bioethicists on important issues, I see the EAs losing. If the public largely agreed about the foibles of bioethicists it would be another story, but our group is weird in both our priorities, and our apparent vitriol against "bioethicists".
Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T00:10:25.922Z · EA · GW

I actually agree with this part of the Galef/Yglesias discussion, in that I think for major public health decisions they should generally be more a matter of public endorsement than ethical "expertise". As for what expertise might look like, I guess it would be understanding different well-known distinctions (hedonism versus desire satisfaction, act/omission versus intention) and well known dilemmas (totalist population axiology sounds no good, but neither does anything else) which can make a difference to how you think about the issues.

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T00:05:53.048Z · EA · GW

Actually I'm the one who posted this one, Nick edits all of my posts because they are published on his blog (though this one won't be there until he gets back to RIT). I'll be busy the next couple of days, but I'll take it under advisement!

Comment by Devin Kalish on The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright · 2022-01-08T00:03:54.761Z · EA · GW

Thanks so much! Applied Divinity Studies deserves a good deal of the credit for the style though, they really pushed me to make the tone more engaging/bold, and even gave me suggested rewrites in some places. I have gotten the subheading suggestion a couple of times now on different pieces, so you're right that I should look into doing that more going forward.