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Bioethics. 2009 May;23(4):226-35. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01711.x.

'Nobody tosses a dwarf!' The relation between the empirical and the normative reexamined.

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  • 1Tilburg University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Religious Studies and Theology, Tilburg, The Netherlands. c.j.w.leget@uvt.nl


This article discusses the relation between empirical and normative approaches in bioethics. The issue of dwarf tossing, while admittedly unusual, is chosen as a point of departure because it challenges the reader to look with fresh eyes upon several central bioethical themes, including human dignity, autonomy, and the protection of vulnerable people. After an overview of current approaches to the integration of empirical and normative ethics, we consider five ways that the empirical and normative can be brought together to speak to the problem of dwarf tossing: prescriptive applied ethics, theoretical ethics, critical applied ethics, particularist ethics and integrated empirical ethics. We defend a position of critical applied ethics that allows for a two-way relation between empirical and normative theories. Against efforts fully to integrate the normative and the empirical into one synthesis, we propose that the two should stand in tension and relation to one another. The approach we endorse acknowledges that a social practice can and should be judged both by the gathering of empirical data and by normative ethics. Critical applied ethics uses a five stage process that includes: (a) determination of the problem, (b) description of the problem, (c) empirical study of effects and alternatives, (d) normative weighing and (e) evaluation of the effects of a decision. In each stage, we explore the perspective from both the empirical (sociological) and the normative ethical point of view. We conclude by applying our five-stage critical applied ethics to the example of dwarf tossing.

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