Leo Varadkar believes publicly-funded hospitals should be imbued with “a civic and scientific ethos.” So he said in his Dublin Castle address to Pope Francis. But that term, “scientific ethos”, needs a lot of explaining.
Science deals with physical reality, while ethos deals with the moral character of an institution, its values and goals. One describes how physical things are, the other prescribes the principles that should inspire decisions and actions.
A hospital must be based on the scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, etc, but science does not tell us what is morally right or wrong. For instance, science tells us how to perform an abortion but does not tell us if and when it is morally just to do so. Science is not immoral but, rather, amoral in the sense that knowledge can be used for right or wrong purposes, depending on the ethical character of the person or of the institution.
Nonetheless, medicine is an inexplicably value-laden endeavour. It is intrinsically ethical because it is based on the assumption, which is not scientific but rather moral, that health is a good thing and has to be preserved. Medicine combines scientific knowledge with ethical purposes.
A hospital where patient-care is not based on science is guilty of quackery. But equally, when a hospital uses medical knowledge and expertise to actively harm patients (for example, through abortion or assisted suicide), it is no longer practicing medicine at all.
Moral neutrality in public policy is often a mask for some hidden ideology. Leo Varadkar is correct in affirming that publicly-funded hospitals should be imbued with a “civic ethos”, in the sense that they are at the service of the common good. But the expression “scientific ethos” is here inappropriate. It appears to be an attempt by the Taoiseach to propose a more ‘rational’ and ‘progressive’ substitute for the older “religious ethos”, but unfortunately it is based on a profound misunderstanding of the relationships between science and ethics.
Scientific knowledge is morally neutral. It must be guided by ethical principles which are external to it and derived instead from philosophies, ideologies, traditions, including religious ones. On the other hand, an ethos is never neutral as, by definition, it endorses specific values, and this is why there is no such a thing as a “scientific ethos” per se.
At the end of the day, our Taoiseach seems to want our hospitals to be governed by an ethos of choice first and foremost, rather than the preservation of life, and he has decided to cloak his favoured ethos in the clothes of ‘science’. This is a misuse of the concept.
(Picture: Maxwell Photography)