Professor Don Seeman
9 April 2023
Week 11 Blog Post
In “Moral Experience and Ethical Reflection: Can Ethnography reconcile them? A quandary for the new Bioethics,” Kleinman first discusses the problems of three -isms with bioethics research: ethnocentrism, medicocentrism, and psychocentrism. He then proposes the new bioethics that is “more inclusive of alternative approaches, seemingly more willing to employ a broader variety of perspectives, more empirical, and even experimental–in the sense of trying out, albeit gingerly, new methods of inquiry” (70). However, there is a dilemma in the efforts to achieve such a bioethics approach: how to reconcile the difference between the universal and the personal to eventually foster action. We can think in terms of a local network of relationships, work, and politics of a place to understand the particular/personal. And empirical research can provide essential knowledge of these local worlds for bioethics. He argues that “moral experience is about the local processes (collective, interpersonal, subjective) that realize (enact) values in ordinary living” and personal and moral experiences are intertwined to be a value with emotion (71). Ethical formulations that ignore the local moral conditions of marginalized groups render them irrelevant and utopian. However, since some local conditions are utterly unethical (such as genocide), how should we criticize such local conditions based on ethics– “unless ethics provides trans-local values that can criticize local practices from the outside” (73)? He calls this the quandary of bioethics.
A classical approach to this quandary is arguing that the idea of human nature suggests that humans will universally bear the same moral sensibilities regardless of the context. In addition, “by naturalizing human experience, ethics can be predicated on a universal psychobiology, which can be objectively known” (74). The problem, however, is that there is no universal agreement on what human nature is. First, we lack the psychobiological data that help us understand human moral conditions. Second, claims made on evolutionary human values do not provide anything specific to solve what we face nowadays. A third approach to the quandary argues that no local world, despite how troubling the local practices may be, should be judged beyond standards of its own. Kleinman warns that this is a dangerous attempt to give up on the burden of responsibility for “providing translocal judgment on what is locally at stake” (76).
Kleinman then analyzes how far the model of ethnography can address the dilemma mentioned before. He argues that ethnographers are placed in an uncomfortable position that pushes them to be self-reflexive and destabilizes stereotypes and cliches. Because ethnography requires practical action, although it may not directly provide a practical solution, it is a heuristic to think through the dilemma. Ethnographers recognize a tension between the moral process they come to understand in their fieldwork and the moral process they are used to in their world. Their awareness of this tension highlights a gap between the moral (local) and the ethical (universal).
Kleinman also observes problems with ethnography. He notes that rather than self-reflexive comparative ethics, ethnographers often focus on epistemology. However, this should not discourage researchers from using ethnography as a method because ethnographic description begins with a respectful understanding of local cultures and morals. Ethnography offers a profound moral-emotional-professional autobiography. He then uses a number of examples to illustrate how ethnography can contribute to the work of bioethics.
At last, Kleinman discusses the limitations of using ethnography to study bioethics: it requires much time, requires intensive professional training, can hardly claim objectivity, and so on. He suggests an ethnographic method to study bioethics at the end of the article.
In “Blessing Unplanned Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health,” the researchers conduct an ethnographic study of African American at a homeless shelter. Although these women mostly became pregnant unintentionally or despite contraceptive measures and pregnancy was among their reasons for becoming homeless, they considered pregnancy a catalyst for positive change and a blessing. This is against the backdrop that planning and intentionality are the focal points in contemporary public health practice. This study reframes the conversation about the reproductive agency by paying attention to how vernacular religion (everyday religious discourses, practices, experiences) may disrupt or complicate the binary notion of intended/unintended pregnancy.
The article then goes on to explain the methodology and basic situation of the shelter they studied. Although the shelter claimed that they were neutral in religious inclination, they did offer optional religious sessions. The emphasis on personal responsibility and self-management was so prevalent that it outweighed any particular doctrinal influence.
Women studied in this research expressed ambivalence with respect to human control over reproduction. They worried that using reproductive technologies would not be forgiven by God. Residents of Naomi’s House often depicted pregnancy or motherhood as something that was largely outside their control. Nevertheless, they also highlighted the fact that motherhood presented an opportunity for them to begin anew, receive blessings, or overcome hardship. The women attributed their ability to transform their lives from one of constant struggle and disappointment to one of achievement and success to motherhood. The belief in blessings and being chosen reflects a form of religious expression that may not fit neatly into the categorization of “religious” or “secular” discourse. This belief is not typically linked to debates on contraception in American political and religious discourse but rather expresses the view that pregnancy is a gift or blessing that should not be too strictly controlled by human agency.