Relative Values: Perspectives on a Neuroimaging Technology From Above and Within the Ethical Landscape.
Samuel G., Cribb A., Owens J., Williams C.
In this paper we contribute to "sociology in bioethics" and help clarify the range of ways sociological work can contribute to ethics scholarship. We do this using a case study of an innovative neurotechnology, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and its use to attempt to diagnose and communicate with severely brain-injured patients. We compare empirical data from interviews with relatives of patients who have a severe brain injury with perspectives from mainstream bioethics scholars. We use the notion of an "ethical landscape" as an analogy for the different ethical positions subjects can take-whereby a person's position relative to the landscape makes a difference to the way they experience and interact with it. We show that, in comparison to studying abstract ethics "from above" the ethical landscape, which involves universal generalizations and global judgements, studying ethics empirically "from the ground," within the ethical landscape foregrounds a more plural and differentiated picture. We argue it is important not to treat empirical ethics as secondary to abstract ethics, to treat on-the-ground perspectives as useful only insofar as they can inform ethics from above. Rather, empirical perspectives can illuminate the plural vantage points in ethical judgments, highlight the "lived" nature of ethical reasoning, and point to all ethical vantage points as being significant. This is of epistemic importance to normative ethics, since researchers who pay attention to the various positions in and trajectories through the ethical landscape are unlikely to think about ethics in terms of abstract agency-as can happen with top-down ethics-or to elide agency with the agency of policymakers. Moreover, empirical perspectives may have transformative implications for people on the ground, especially where focus on the potential harms and benefits they face brings their experiences and interests to the forefront of ethical and policy discussion.