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What is Bio(un)ethical?

On each episode, we interview an expert on an important and controversial issue in bioethics. For instance, in our first few episodes, we consider the following questions: Should there be risk limits on research involving consenting participants? Does the IRB system do more harm than good? Should patients with intractable mental illness have access to medical aid in dying? What is the point of teaching ethics to professional school students?


Who are we?

You can read more about our professional backgrounds here. But we are also friends, who have different academic backgrounds, different research interests, and different ethical commitments. Despite these differences, in our own conversations, we often wind up agreeing on how we should approach various bioethical issues. And when we continue to disagree, we are generally able to identify the specific sources of disagreement, while finding substantial common ground. We hope to do something similar on our podcast, and to thereby progress debates on controversial issues in bioethics.


Who is the podcast for?

We aim to have conversations at a high level and to meaningfully engage with the issues we discuss, which is why the episodes are ~90 minutes long. That said, we hope the podcast will be accessible to anyone interested in bioethical issues, including those without a background in any given subject area. To this end, we provide some context at the start of every episode and define concepts and terms as they arise. We think you might be especially interested in the podcast if you’re interested in bioethics, philosophy, or effective altruism.

Why are we doing this?

Generally speaking, we hope to improve discourse around bioethical issues in three ways.


First, we are skeptical that certain norms in medicine, science, and public health are the right ones. We want to question them, and hopefully incite further discourse about them.


Second, we aim to build bridges between different communities working independently on related issues. For instance, people in the bioethics community and people in the effective altruism community have researched and written extensively on human challenge trials, resource allocation, pandemic risk, and so on, but there has been relatively limited productive discourse between these communities. We hope the podcast will encourage members of different camps to talk to each other (by, for instance, showing that individuals in each share many of the same ethical commitments and empirical assumptions, even when they arrive at different conclusions about what policies we should implement or actions we should take). Meanwhile, many bioethicists believe philosophers have no meaningful role to play in contemporary bioethics, and many philosophers look down on bioethics as a sub-discipline that requires little philosophical skill. We hope the podcast will demonstrate that philosophy is vital to making progress in bioethics, and that bioethics involves more than the “simple” application of existing concepts and principles to real-world cases.


Third, we want to make high-quality bioethics discourse more accessible to non-bioethicists. Currently, bioethics discourse exists in two main forms. First, bioethicists often give short quotes to journalists or write brief op-eds on hot-button issues. You can only say so much in a few hundred words, which makes it challenging to discuss bioethical issues in a nuanced way in this format. While important, this kind of black-and-white discussion of bioethical issues (“we shouldn’t do challenge trials because they’re too risky”), can contribute to polarization. Second, bioethicists often convey the deeper versions of their ideas in lengthy journal articles. But non-bioethicists may not have access, the desire, or the time to read thousands of words on a narrow bioethical issue. And we don’t think someone should have to delve deeply into the bioethics literature to understand a bioethicist’s perspective on an issue, or what the bioethics community thinks about it. We thus hope to create a discourse that occurs at a “medium” depth (deeper than a newspaper article, but shallower than a journal article) for people who are thinking seriously about bioethical issues, but want to engage with them more casually.


Logistical stuff

In Season 1, we will release episodes every other Tuesday for ten weeks, between August and December. You can sign up for our mailing list to be notified when new episodes are released, or you can follow us on Twitter (leah_pierson and sophiehgibert). Our podcast is supported by a grant from Amplify Creative Grants.


Final thoughts

There’s a learning curve associated with figuring out how to do a podcast well, so you’ll hear us learn and grow as hosts as the episodes progress. That said, we’d be eager to hear your feedback and suggestions (including for topics and guests), which you can submit here. Please also rate and review the podcast on normal podcasting platforms (Spotify, Apple, Google). Thanks in advance for your support. We look forward to sharing these conversations with you.

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