BACKGROUND: Despite the increased prevalence of bioethics research that seeks to use empirical data to answer normative research questions, there is no consensus as to what an appropriate methodology for this would be. This review aims to search the literature, present and critically discuss published Empirical Bioethics methodologies. METHODS: MedLine, Web of Science and Google Scholar were searched between 15/02/12 and 16/06/13 to find relevant papers. These were abstract reviewed independently by two reviewers with papers meeting the inclusion criteria subjected to data extraction. RESULTS: 33 publications (32 papers and one book chapter) were included which contained 32 distinct methodologies. The majority of these methodologies (n = 22) can be classed as either dialogical or consultative, and these represent two extreme 'poles' of methodological orientation. Consideration of these results provoked three central questions that are central to the planning of an empirical bioethics study, and revolve around how a normative conclusion can be justified, the analytic process through which that conclusion is reached, and the kind of conclusion that is sought. CONCLUSION: When considering which methodology or research methods to adopt in any particular study, researchers need to think carefully about the nature of the claims they wish to generate through their analyses, and how these claims align with the aims of the research. Whilst there are superficial similarities in the ways that identical research methods are made use of, the different meta-ethical and epistemological commitments that undergird the range of methodological approaches adopted rehearse many of the central foundational disagreements that play out within moral philosophy and bioethical analysis more broadly. There is little common ground that transcends these disagreements, and we argue that this is likely to present a challenge for the legitimacy of the bioethical enterprise. We conclude, however, that this heterogeneity ought to be welcomed, but urge those involved in the field to engage meaningfully and explicitly with questions concerning what kinds of moral claim they want to be able to make, about normative justification and the methodological process, and about the coherence of these components within their work.

Original publication

DOI

10.1186/s12910-015-0010-3

Type

Journal article

Journal

BMC Med Ethics

Publication Date

07/03/2015

Volume

16

Keywords

Bioethical Issues, Bioethics, Empirical Research, Ethical Analysis, Ethical Theory, Humans, Morals, Research Design