The possibility of empirical psychiatric ethics

John McMillan and Tony Hope

in Empirical Ethics in Psychiatry

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print February 2008 | ISBN: 9780199297368
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754586 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

The possibility of empirical psychiatric ethics

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We have argued that the increased use of empirical methods by ethicists interested in psychiatry, and an interest in using ethical analysis in research by scientists and clinicians, are important new developments. Encouraging the fit between what is written about psychiatric ethics in an academic context and the actual ethical problems and issues for those working in psychiatry, service users and their families is an appropriate way for this area to develop and empirical ethics is a promising way to help achieve this aim.

We believe that the philosophical worries about incorporating empirical work into ethical analysis are not insurmountable. Both Humean worries about moving from the descriptive to the normative and the naturalistic fallacy are not as problematic for empirical ethics as might at first be thought.

We have discussed various ways in which empirical work and ethical analyses can be combined in order to address research issues. In some of these examples we believe that the two approaches to research remain sufficiently separated for it to be reasonable to claim that rather than talking of empirical ethics we can talk of a research project that has separate empirical and ethical components. But at the other end of the spectrum there are research projects that involve such an intimate and mutually interactive relationship between the empirical work and the ethical analyses that it is more reasonable to talk of a research method that is empirical medical ethics.

Bioethics is an intellectual enterprise where academics from various disciplines debate moral questions. Acquiring and developing methodologies from the contributing disciplines is integral to the future development of bioethics as an area. An important challenge to interdisciplinary inquiry is the temptation to defend the boundaries and methodologies of one's discipline of origin. Using qualitative methodologies for empirical psychiatric ethics is a useful and legitimate way to develop psychiatric ethics.

Empirical medical ethics is in one sense trivially a multidisciplinary field. In order to develop it will need partnerships between researchers with differing disciplinary backgrounds and research skills. But this might be only a phase. What start out as multidisciplinary fields can develop into single fields. Clinical trials started as a development involving mathematicians, scientists, and clinicians. Now there is a generation of academics with integrated trial skills. Chemical engineering is a well-established university degree – separate from and more mathematically informed than chemistry. In future generations of young researchers may well master the skills of, say, social science and ethics so completely that combining the skills is effortless and indeed experienced as using a single research method. Discipline boundaries and research methods are fluid: what is now experienced as an uncomfortable marriage of opposites may come to be seen as an integrated unity.

In this chapter we have argued in favour of the concept of empirical psychiatric ethics. The purpose of Section 2 of this book is to demonstrate its practice.

Chapter.  5575 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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