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Bioethics and Interdisciplinarity. Soraj Hongladarom Philosophy, Chulalongkorn University. Presentation given at the First Bangkok Bioethics Roundtable, September 11-15, 2005, Bangkok, Thailand. Outline.

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Bioethics and interdisciplinarity
Bioethics and Interdisciplinarity

  • Soraj Hongladarom

  • Philosophy, Chulalongkorn University

Presentation given at the First Bangkok Bioethics Roundtable,

September 11-15, 2005, Bangkok, Thailand


  • Questions: What kind of discipline is bioethics? If it’s interdisciplinary, what is its nature? What are the practical implications of this issue? How should bioethics be taught? What should a program of study in bioethics look like?

  • Basic problems of interdisciplinarity - how to integrate different things so that a new thing is created while the differences are still there? Also problems with disciplinarity.

Bioethics as a discipline
Bioethics as a Discipline

  • Being a ‘discipline’ means that bioethics has its own canon, its own method that is agreed upon, its own problematic, and its own store of knowledge.

  • The current situation appears to head into this direction. Bioethics seems indeed to be on its way toward being a discipline on its own.

Bioethics as a discipline1
Bioethics as a Discipline

  • However, bioethics differs from the traditional disciplines in that it comprises several different disciplines from the beginning—from philosophy, it has blossomed and included more social scientific disciplines.

  • So there is an underlying tension—on the one hand it strives to be a discipline, but on the other it needs input from the other ones.

Criticism of interdisciplinarity
Criticism of Interdisciplinarity

A man who can lay claim to knowledge about some categorized bit of the world, however tiny, which is greater than anyone else's knowledge of that bit, is safe for life: reputation grows, paranoia deepens. The number of papers increases exponentially, knowledge grows by infinitesimals, but understanding of the world actually recedes, because the world really is an interacting system. And since the world, in many of its aspects, is changing at an exponential rate, this kind of scholarship, rooted in the historical search of its own sanctified categories, is in large part unavailing to the needs of mankind.

There has been some recognition of this, and inter-disciplinary studies are by now commonplace in every university. But will this deal with the problem? Unfortunately, it will not. We still say that a graduate must have his 'basic discipline', and this he is solemnly taught - as if such a thing had a precise environmental correlate, and as if we know that God knew the difference between physics and chemistry. He learns also the academic mores, catches the institutional paranoia, and proceeds to propagate the whole business. Thus it is that an 'interdisciplinary study' often consists of a group of disciplinarians holding hands in a ring for mutual comfort. The ostensible topic has slipped down the hole in the middle. Among those who recognize this too, a natural enough debate has ensued on the subject: can an undergraduate be taught 'interdisciplinary studies' as his basic subject? But there is no such subject; there is no agreement on what it would be like; and we are rather short of anyone qualified to do the teaching. Those who resist the whole idea, in my view correctly, say that it would endanger the norms of good scholarship. There is a deadlock....

The dissolution of the deadlock within the disciplinary system that I described above has got to be metasystemic, not merely interdisciplinary. We are not interested in forming a league of disciplinary paranoids, but (as Hegel could have told us) in a higher synthesis of disciplines....

In the mounting pile of new books printed every year that are properly called scientific, one may take hold of one's candle and search like a veritable Diogenes for a single one answering to the honest criteria I have proposed for a metasystemic utterance. There is only a handful in existence at all, which is not surprising in view of the way both knowledge and academia are organized. And yet, as I have also proposed, herein lies the world's real need. If we are to understand a newer and still evolving world; if we are to educate people to live in that world; if we are to legislate for that world; if we are to abandon categories and institutions that belong to a vanished world, as it is well-nigh desparate that we should; then knowledge must be rewritten.

Stafford Beer, Prefact to Humberto R Maturana and Francisco J Varela, Autopoiesis: The Realization of the Living (1980): 64-5

How to respond
How to Respond?

  • The criticism proposes a ‘higher synthesis of disciplines’ rather than a mere collection of disparate ones. The idea is that the different disciplines should somehow be merged together in such a way that a completely new entity develops.

  • But it is problematic what that really is.

  • The whole idea of interdisciplinarity lies precisely in the fact that different discplines are working together.

How to respond1
How to Respond?

  • The idea of creating a new ‘metasystem’ will just result in bioethics becoming ‘homogenous’ like the other, more traditional disciplines. So the advantages of interdisciplinarities vanish.

  • The criticism asks how ‘interdisplinarity studies’ should be taught to undergraduates. But these should not be taught to these students because they need to be well grounded in the traditional disciplines first.

  • This is necessary because interdisciplinary studies emerged from the collaboration among disciplines, so the disciplines are already presupposed.

Criticism of disciplinarity
Criticism of Disciplinarity

  • Steve Fuller:

    • “...disciplines are artificial ‘holding patterns’ of inquiry whose metaphysical significance should not be overestimated.”

    • “...the persistent need for interdisciplinary solutions to disciplinary problems brings out the inherently conventional character of disciplines.”


  • Fuller argues that academic disciplines are social conventions and constructions; hence one way to respond to this is to deconstruct the line between interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity.

  • Implications for bioethics is that we need to find a balance between the traditional disciplines and interdisciplines—but perhaps this distinction should be dispensed with altogether.

A way out
A Way Out

  • So instead of searching for such a ‘metasystem’ we should work with what we already have, while bearing in mind that there is no real distinction between disciplines and interdisciplines.

  • Instead of creating an entirely new entity, we should remain with the old, trusted ones and bring all of them together in the study of bioethics. All ‘disciplines’ are provisional any way.

Practical implications
Practical implications

  • Different viewpoints from the disciplines—philosophy, law, sociology, etc.—are crucial. Students of bioethics would need to be already well grounded in one or more such disciplines.

  • Organizing study programs is thus always a juggling effort. But that is the challenge.

Practical implications1
Practical implications

  • The interdisciplinary nature of bioethics has created some confusion about how to organize it within a university. Where should it belong?

  • What is happening at Chulalongkorn University.

  • My effort at establishing a bioethics MA program.

    • Obstacles and worries.


  • The rigid organizational structure of the university should be loosened up.

  • What this presupposes and requires?

  • What does this show regarding the nature of today’s academic discipline?


Public Forum on

Biobanking Laws in EU and ASEAN:

Lessons and Prospects

Pathumwan Princess Hotel

Friday, 16 September 2006

1:30 to 5:30 PM