Interview on February 17th, 2010
1. Where are you working at this moment?
I am a sociologist, working at the bioethics program at the University of Michigan Medical School. I have appointments in the departments of medical education, obstetrics and gynaecology, and the department of sociology in the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts.
2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care?
My research is built on what I call a “sociology of bioethics” perspective. This means that rather than using my ability as a social scientist to answer questions generated by bioethicists (“sociology in bioethics”), I use bioethics as an arena for learning more about society, culture, and social organization. This approach naturally leads me to investigate different approaches to ethical reasoning – care ethics, principlism, feminist ethics, casuistry, etc. – with an eye toward understanding why and how these different strategies are used. At the moment I am completing a book-length social history of bioethics and I am involved in a few research projects including, a study of the use of deliberative democracy to guide the creation of policy on surrogate consent for research and an interview study that is challenging existing ideas about the therapeutic misconception.
3. How did you get involved into the ethics of care?
As I explained above, I am interested in the different approaches to defining and resolving ethical dilemmas – how they have been developed, where they are used, who champions them. So my interest in care ethics (and its social location and social uses) begins there. My understanding of care ethics was greatly enhanced by a semester I spent at the Center for Law and ethics at the University of Leuven in the Fall of 2006. My great teachers there – Chris Gastmans, Kris Dierickx, Paul Schotsmans, Herman Nys, and Pascal Borry – introduced me to important nuances in the field.
4. How would you define ethics of care?
The ethics of care is an approach to seeing and resolving ethical problems that begins by understanding the individual and her social situation. Rather than an abstract approach that seeks to generalize about the nature and content of ethical problems, care ethics looks at moral problems in situ, seeking to understand and resolve these problems by recognizing how they are generated by (among other things) unequal relationships that derive from ideas about gender, ethnicity, and social class.
5. What is the most important thing you learned from the ethics of care?
I am not a well-versed student of Levinas, but his notion of the concept of l’autre – the other – and his insistence that the beginning of ethics is consideration of “the other” has given me a foundation on which to build an approach to (bio)ethics. Acting ethically in medicine, or in any sphere, requires attention and consideration of the other. Interestingly, this same idea is at the heart of principlism. The Belmont Report describes three principles: justice, beneficence, and respect for autonomy (not simply autonomy): this latter principle comes to close to the idea of Levinas in that it is asking that attention be paid to the (autonomy of) the other.
6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?
Most important to me has been the work of Margaret Urban Walker. Her work on moral contexts, moral repair, and moral understanding (the titles three of her books) helped me (a social scientist!) to think more broadly and more clearly about the relational aspects of moral decision-making.
7. What works of in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?
Aside from the books by Walker mentioned above, I was inspired by Carol Gilligan’s, In a Different Voice. Long before I became interested in bioethics, this book got me thinking about how one’s situation in life shaped one’s moral sensibilities.
8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?
R. De Vries. ”How can we help? From ‘sociology in’ bioethics to ‘sociology of’ bioethics.” Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Vol. 32, No. 2, 2004: 279-292.
R. De Vries, “Firing the neuroethical imagination.” EMBO Reports. Vol. 8, 2007: S65-69.
R. De Vries, “The Prepositions of Bioethics.” Hastings Center Report, 38(3), 2008: 49.
R. De Vries, N. Berlinger, and W. Cadge “Lost in translation: the chaplain’s role in health care. Hastings Center Report, 38(6), 2008: 23-27.
R. De Vries, “Why can’t we all just get along? A comment on Turner’s plea to social scientists and bioethicists.” Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics. 18 (1), 2009: 43-46.
R. De Vries, Charles Bosk, Leigh Turner, and Kristina Orfali (eds.). The view from here: Social Science and Bioethics. London: Blackwell, 2007.
9. What are important issues for the ethics of care in the future?
Ethicists must begin to think more about “upstream” solutions to ethical problems. At the moment, ethics is largely a reactive exercise, where one waits until an ethical dilemma arises and then struggles with a solution. Care ethics points us in a different direction: toward a way of thinking about the social and cultural conditions that are likely to generate ethical problems and then seeking to alter those conditions.
10. In Tilburg our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?
Yes, how about organizing an international conference on “upstream bioethics?”