Alexander A. Kon talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's New Hot Paper in the field of Social Sciences,
Article Title: The Role of Empirical Research in
Authors: Kon, AA
Journal: AM J BIOETH
* Univ Calif Davis, 2516 Stockton Blvd, Sacramento, CA 95817
* Univ Calif Davis, Sacramento, CA 95817 USA.
Why do you think your paper is highly cited?
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of
This paper provides a novel framework for understanding how empirical
research can inform bioethics. In the past, many have argued that empirical
work cannot inform normative ethics, however in "The role of empirical
research in bioethics" I demonstrate not only how such research can impact
normative ethics, but also provide concrete examples of the significant
impact empirical research has had on normative ethics. This work presents a
novel synthesis of knowledge.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
"This work supports the assertion that we need improved
funding for bioethics research."
Bioethicists have argued for many years whether doing research could help
shape what is termed normative ethics. Normative ethics can be thought of
as "what we ought to do." For example, we ought to provide the highest
quality care we can to our patients, we ought to respect the patient's
right to make one's own healthcare decisions, we ought to be honest with
patients, these are all examples of normative ethics. In contrast, research
can only tell us "what is."
For example, research can tell us whether physicians provide the highest
quality care they can to their patients, whether healthcare providers
indeed respect patients' rights to make their own healthcare decisions, and
whether providers are honest with their patients. Therefore, many have
argued that empirical research cannot inform normative ethics—or in
bioethics terminology, the "is" cannot inform the "ought."
In this paper, I present a four-tiered framework to understanding the roll
of empirical research in bioethics: "Lay of the Land" research, in which
investigators explore the current state of affairs; "Ideal versus Reality"
studies, in which researchers test whether we live up to our ideals as
determined by normative ethics; "Improving Care" research, in which
investigators test new approaches to bring reality closer to our ideas; and
finally "Changing Ethical Norms" articles, in which ethicists use
previously published studies to demonstrate that our normative ethics
should be changed based on empirical findings.
This work brings to rest the long-standing debate by clarifying how the
"is" can inform the "ought," and by articulating changes in our ethical
norms that have occurred due to empirical research results.
How did you become involved in this research, and
were there any problems along the way?
I have been involved with both empirical research in bioethics and
normative ethics for some time, therefore this work flowed naturally from
my previous work. There were many problems in attempting to construct a
robust and accurate system of categorization, and in detailing the
intricacies of how exactly empirical work can inform normative ethics.
Where do you see your research leading in the
I have several research interests focusing primarily on decision-making in
the care of critically ill children and in informed permission and assent
for research involving children.
Do you foresee any social or political
implications for your research?
Yes. This work supports the assertion that we need improved funding for
Alexander A. Kon, M.D., C.M., F.A.A.P., F.C.C.M.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Bioethics
University of California Davis School of Medicine
Director of Bioethics
University of California Davis Clinical and Translational Science
University of California Davis Medical Center Bioethics Consultation
Sacramento, CA, USA Web