Why Bioethics Should Engage the Cynic

July 11, 2022

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Written by guest bloggers Catalina González Quintero and Allison B. Wolf

In “What the World Needs Now, Is Hume, Sweet Hume,” I (Wolf) primarily used Catalina González’s book, Academic Skepticism in Hume and Kant to reflect on the relationship between different types of skepticism and debates about Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. Since then, González has started exploring cynicism as well in ways that have made me question limiting my focus to skepticism.  So, I asked her if she would be willing to think more with me about cynicism and its relationship to Covid vaccine hesitancy and feminist bioethics, and she graciously agreed.  What follows are some of our preliminary observations.

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When we began thinking about hesitancy to Covid-19 vaccines and other mitigation measures (such as masking), we knew that bioethicists and public health figures would benefit from engaging classic philosophical literature about the nature of knowledge and the possibility of attaining it.  And we knew this because it was apparent to us that much of the distrust of the institutions and figures advocating them was based on both radical and moderate skepticism. But the more we explore the issue, the more we note the variety of epistemic positions circulating in the discussion, including cynicism (albeit sometimes disguised as skepticism).

Unlike skepticism, which holds that we should weigh evidence on various sides of an issue before taking a position, we take cynicism to fundamentally be a “negative dogmatism;” it is a belief set that denies the very possibility of finding truthful (or plausible enough) positions at all since, according to cynics, all of our beliefs come from egotistical interests, hidden intentions, and the struggle for power.  This means that where a moderate skeptic would agree that someone could take the Covid-19 vaccine while continuing to investigate its side effects and efficacy, the cynic would advise against getting vaccinated at all, since those who support vaccination are simply promoting their own self-interest (or those of pharmaceutical companies).  And so, rather than contributing to public discussion, the cynic closes off debate and fuels conspiracy theories.  Under these circumstances, we may be tempted to think it is best for public health officials and bioethicists to not engage cynics at all.

We were originally tempted to take this very stance. After all, if the cynic does not trust the authorities from the start and there is no apparent path to dialogue, then it is unclear why engaging them would be useful for advancing societal public health goals (in this case about vaccination).  And if this is true, between the fact feminist bioethicists (and other public health officials) both have limited time and resources and are fundamentally interested in improving the health of marginalized groups (which requires good public health efforts), it may seem that ignoring the cynic would be the best course of action.  But after thinking more about it, we now think that ignoring the cynic would be a mistake and a misunderstanding of their position.  More specifically, we think that if we reinterpret the cynical stance as a “negative dogmatisms” (as we suggest), then this means that they are actually challenging the possibility that someone actually has good moral intentions, not the possibility of attaining knowledge itself.  And if that is the case, there is hope that engaging the cynics could yield various potential benefits and public health officials and bioethicists both can, and should, do so.

About the Authors

photo of authorAllison B. Wolf, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Researcher at the Center for Migration Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, where she teaches feminist philosophy, philosophy of immigration, political philosophy, and ethics. She is the author of Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020) and co-editor of Incarnating Feelings, Constructing Communities: Experiencing Emotions in the Americas through Education, Violence, and Public Policy with Ana María Forero Angel and Catalina González Quintero (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and Applying Jewish Ethics with Jennifer Thompson (Lexington, forthcoming).  She is currently working on issues around immigration justice in a South-South context in the Americas as well as researching connections between feminist philosophy and skepticism.

Her article, “What the World Needs Now Is Hume, Sweet Hume: Some Reflections on COVID Vaccine Hesitancies and Skepticism” appears in IJFAB Volume 15 Issue 1.

Catalina González earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Emory University in the United States and is currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Her research focuses on the history of Modern philosophy, particularly in the areas of skepticism and rhetoric. Her book, Academic Philosophy in Hume and Kant. A Ciceronian Critique of Metaphysics is published by Springer (2022) as part of the Synthese Library Collection. She has also published various articles and book chapters on the philosophy of Cicero, Kant, Hume, and Vico in U.S., European and Latin American journals and compilations by Springer, Palgrave, De Gruyter, SUNY Press, Lawrence Erlbaum, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and Universidad de los Andes.

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