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Biomedical Ethics Helps in a Crisis

Philosophers can serve as a bridge between policy and science as decision-makers face difficult health care choices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Samuel Gorovitz portrait

With U.S. hospitals at a tipping point, COVID-19 raises a host of scientific, medical and policy questions—ones that philosophers are prepared to help answer, says Professor Samuel Gorovitz, a biomedical ethicist in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Philosophers do not tell doctors or families or anyone else what to do. But we can help them clarify their own thinking and values, identify factors they have overlooked, deepen their understanding of issues of causation and responsibility, and enable them to have more confidence in the decisions they ultimately make,” he says.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 emerged at the end of last year, Gorovitz has immersed himself in the moral repercussions of clinical trials, social distancing, and health care workers’ rights, obligations and burdens.

Some of the thorniest issues are playing out around us, as many hospitals face severe shortages of supplies, life-saving equipment and qualified personnel. Some think it's a matter of time before U.S. doctors, like their Italian counterparts, will have to decide who lives and who dies.

Exacerbating the problem is the cultural divide between science and policy.

Philosophers can help bridge the gap, Gorovitz contends, by identifying hidden assumptions, clarifying overlooked distinctions, noticing inconsistencies and detecting inferences that seem sound but are logically flawed. For example, he explains, decision-makers often become trapped in a false dichotomy between public health and economic concerns.

“Sometimes policy makers speak of the value of human life, when they are really thinking about the value of human persons. These are not the same,” says Gorovitz, whose expertise recently has been sought by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Guardian (U.K.) and others.

Ethics is more than just whatever each person considers right or wrong, he notes. It is an analysis founded on “relevant factors,” beginning with rigorous empirical engagement and requiring sound moral judgment.

“COVID-19 will require tragic choices, where every option is dreadful,” he adds. “We ought to have compassion and understanding for those unlucky enough to have to make them.”

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .


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