Applying ethics, a philosophical notion, to the fields of medicine, healthcare, and biology, which are evidence-based and rooted in science, might seem to some like bioethics is a discipline which merely passes judgement on what should be permissible, and what shouldn’t be.
But that is merely a caricature of what bioethics is, and the real scope behind this relatively new field, says Rev. Dr Carlo Calleja, who leads the MA in Bioethics offered by the University of Malta, is more congruent with seeking to bring about a change in culture so that research can go on without violating human dignity, and the natural environment in itself can flourish.
Newspoint did a quick Q&A with Rev. Dr Calleja to find out more about this growing interest of many.
- How long ago did your journey with the Faculty of Theology start and what was the first instance you came across bioethics?
My interest in bioethics was first piqued when I started reading for my first degree in Physiotherapy back in 2000. We had several study hours in bioethics then with Rev. Prof. Emmanuel Agius. We were a large group of students from the nursing profession and from the other allied health professions. I remember becoming enthused as we applied and debated the principles of bioethics to the case of the Gozitan conjoined twins Mary and Jodie. Eventually, in 2008 I began my 7-year-long journey reading theology at the University of Malta. When I returned to Malta after completing my doctoral studies at Boston College in 2020, I began lecturing with the Department of Moral Theology.
- Why is the interest in bioethics growing and what is making it more relevant nowadays?
There are several reasons for this. Even since Greek times, there were hot debates on how far technology should go before our promethean hubris harms humankind itself. However, bioethics as we know it today is a relatively new discipline which was born out of two realities in the 60’s and 70’s.
First, the unimaginable medical advances that were previously only the stuff you would find in sci-fi novels and films, such as the first successful heart transplant by South African doctor Christiaan Bernard in 1963. Second, the civil rights movement which turned attention to the rights not only of black people and oppressed workers, but also of patients. 50 years on, both of these issues have become even more important, coupled with other factors such as the heterogeneity of society, globalisation and increased environmental awareness.
- It is the opinion of some that bioethics allows for religious pluralism, like an orchestra where all religions can create harmony, or a shared language in case of conflicts, if you will. Does this analogy hold true?
Before answering your question, it is important to bear in mind that although the MA in Bioethics is offered by the Faculty of Theology, it does so through the Professional Ethics Platform within the same Faculty, along with the MA in Business Ethics and the MA in Environmental Ethics. Since these programmes are aimed at gearing students for the secular professional world, the ethics resources used are completely secular and are delivered in collaboration with other faculties. The MA in Bioethics is, in fact, delivered in collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery and the Faculty of Laws.
To answer your question about the different religions and ethics, I tend to agree with scholar John D’Arcy May who insists that all religions and even godless cultures and atheistic philosophies have at their core an ethics, contextualised nonetheless, but which tend towards the good life. Here lies the importance of the public sphere that Jurgen Habermas believes is a sine qua non, and which, truth be told, is often obfuscated because of political propaganda, economic interests or simply because of poor critical reasoning. Personally, I think that journalism has an important role to play here.
- Descartes used to say that one must validate their beliefs, whatever they are, before they try to change the world. Anyone can see how rapidly the world is changing. How is studying bioethics going to validate one’s beliefs?
Bioethics is less about learning a set of rules and principles than it is about becoming an ethical person and creating an ethical society. This requires developing a robust anthropology, a wholesome vision of humankind. Doing so would allow us to start on a solid foundation and work together towards a common ground. This is why bioethics is fundamentally inter-disciplinary whilst also being sensitive to context.
- How well-received has this course at UM been, so far?
This MA in Bioethics was first launched in 2008; it opens every two years and we’ve had over 100 students since then. Numbers vary, but our largest cohort was of over almost 30 students who graduated last year and we’ve had students from a number of different courses including from education and law, pharmacy, nurses and medical doctors, the allied health professions, and social work.
- How do you feel bioethics provides a solid preparation for any kind of degree or career prospect?
The MA in Bioethics provides the students with the tools needed for critical reasoning to be able to navigate a world which is changing so rapidly. R&D departments in pharmaceutical companies, the urban planning sector, journalism, activist groups, the homes for the elderly and private clinics that are mushrooming around the island—all these would view a person with a bioethical mindset to be an asset on their team. And the market is far from saturated.
- And finally, how is bioethics helping different industries making better decisions?
The current COVID-19 pandemic is clearly a case in point. Since its beginning, journalists around the world have turned their attention to many disadvantaged populations who were bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies have had to wrestle with issues of research ethics as they tried to balance risk versus benefit. Politicians and their public health experts around the world were trying to find ways of balancing the economy against the number of lives lost to COVID. In short, our world is embedded in difficult bioethical issues. Technical expertise is evidently not enough. It must also be complemented by sound and clear-headed argumentation. And bioethics can give us the tools to do so.
The course overview is available online.