UB hosts bioethics debate, escape from the "echo chamber"

Jul 31, 2017

The University at Buffalo has wrapped up an annual two-day conference, during which many controversial philosophical points of view were brought up. This year, keynote speakers were addressing questions and offering arguments that were not for the easily offended. But that's exactly how participants wanted it. As they see it, the willingness to make controversial arguments is a disappearing trend on college campuses.

UB's Philosophy Department hosted their fifth-annual Romanello Conference, formerly known as the PANTC Conference, and this year's theme was Personal Idenity and Human Origins. Among the questions raised during the weekend: when does human life actually begin? At conception? A very short period of time after? Midway through a pregnancy? Or not until the moment of birth?

A poster from this year's Romanell Conference at the University at Buffalo identifies some of the participants and hints at the positions they would take in one of the no-holds-barred debates during the event.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

About the only light and fluffy materials at the conference were the coffee, fruits and pastries.

"It's of interest in itself, when we came into existence, but because of issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research which destroys the embryo, if we once were an early embryo the first few days, then we would have been our destruction," said David Hershenov, professor of philosophy at UB. "The ethical consequences of our origins makes these issues contentious."

But contentious talk was desired. The conference welcomed three keynote speakers who took varying positions on when life begins. Marya Schechtman, professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was one of them. She took a position that life begins closer to conception, stopping short of picking an exact moment.

"The argument I try to make is that choosing one of those depends on the context you're in," she said. "In different cultures and in different times and places, human life might actually begin at different points within the development from fertilization to birth."

Guests have previously published controversial works. Don Marquis, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Kansas, has written several papers including "Why Abortion is Immoral" and "Are DCD Donors Dead?" In the latter paper, he argues that a Donation After Cardiac Death organ donor is not necessarily dead and, thus, transplant surgeons may be killing still-living humans.

But if there's one thing to which he and his fellow guests agreed, it's that the willingness to argue varying points of view, and the willingness to listen to other points of view, is fading. 

"I think it's terribly important and I think universities do a terrible job exposing people to different points of view," Marquis said. 

There were no safe spaces to be found at this conference. The program notes contained some satirical "trigger warnings," ranging from "views that will offend the politically incorrect as well as the PC snowflake" to "views that will make you need to pet a therapy dog." 

"We meet every month, so we know each other's views and where they stand. We're no longer shocked at each other," Hershenov said. "Our ideas get better by bouncing them off our opponents. You don't want to just be the echo chamber, as what all-too-often happens."

John Lizza, philosophy professor at Kutztown University and one of the keynote presenters, agreed with the need to test one's beliefs.

"It challenges ideas. It challenges what people think," Lizza said. "One ought to be open to having one's own views challenged. If they're worth their salt, they'll hold up."

But whether it's within social media platforms, television news viewing habits or even within college classrooms, the challenge is getting people to come out from their comfort zones and test their views.

"It's important not only to get out of the bubble of thinking what you think, but it's also important to think about what you're basing it on, where those thoughts came from, how you came to have them," Schechtman said. "That's something philosophy is particularly good at."

Other topics discussed during the weekend conference were the transgender issue and personal identification and whether physicians deserve the salaries they receive.