Q&A with Matthew Vest on New Book, Ethics Lost in Modernity

By: Emily Watters
July 26, 2023

Matthew Vest, PhD

In studying and practicing bioethics, there is a perpetual pursuit to bridge the gap between scientific reasoning and moral quandaries. In his new book, Ethics Lost in Modernity: Reflections on Wittgenstein and Bioethics (2023), Dr. Matthew Vest incites a necessary dialogue that allows readers to reflect and analyze how the field of bioethics has evolved over the last 60 years. Expanding upon the ideas of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vest stresses the importance of a comprehensive moral framework that balances matters of science and morality in an increasingly more complex world. I had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Vest about his process, motivations, and inspirations during his writing process.

What was the experience like expanding on your ideas to write a book?

This book began as a dissertation, and yet it’s really expected that many things should change if a dissertation will grow and morph into a book. In this case, the two were notably different projects since the two formats and audiences are different. With the dissertation, the focus was primarily on the research/theoretical problem at hand, written for a small group of committee readers. After defending the dissertation, a number of mentors and peers recommended I rework things into a book. Initially, I hesitated since the book is quite interdisciplinary, and I wasn’t sure of the exact publisher and audience. In time, however, a publisher emerged who was excited for a project that examines (first) the type of ethical thinking in mainstream bioethics alongside (second) a Wittgensteinian critique that reveals concerns and limits within principlism. As the book re-write took off, I had time to think more about the rhetorical style of presentation, and during the year-plus of rewriting, I removed an entire chapter, added a chapter, and adapted the order and flow of the book. In the end, the ideas were naturally the same, and yet the two projects—dissertation, then book—were radically different experiences.

What first prompted you to examine the connection between Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy and bioethics?

Prior to reading and teaching bioethics, my background was in the Great Books approach, following the Socratic method. Amidst the Socratic method, questions inspired by wonder leading to dialogue are the main thing, and students and faculty join together to explore meaningful ideas and art forms that stand the test of time. When I moved into bioethics, many students were pre-med, biology, chemistry or other similar majors who had little experience with Socratic thinking and the humanities on the whole. They were excellent students with a beautiful curiosity for engaging, for instance, a classic Socratic question—what is justice?—and yet too many textbooks in bioethics spend more time talking about justice, assuming its meaning, rather than asking what it is. Even more, some bioethics curricula present “the four principles” of bioethics as though simply speaking the terms “autonomy” or “beneficence” will lead one directly to some pure “reality” of these terms that is “out there.” But I think we all know intuitively at least that terms do not necessarily equal “the thing” itself, whatever that may be. Enter Wittgenstein. Much of Wittgenstein’s philosophy focus on tracing the limits of language, and this is so important! For Wittgenstein, scientific thinking works well in spheres of science, and yet there are limits to scientific thinking. Science may say if/when there is biological life within a being, and yet science cannot tell us if or what forms of life are more or less meaningful than others. In short, the term bio-ethics is ripe for analysis as it stands between the spheres of “bios” and “ethos”; even more, if we take the relationship between bios and ethos for granted, we are badly equipped for the task ahead. Wittgenstein thought much about the workings of language, and I have found students respond really well when we take Wittgenstein’s insights with language to the language of bioethics.

Could you elaborate on some of the risks associated with relying heavily on scientific theorizing in ethics?

Without going into too much detail, the first risk is that we force the wrong method (of science) into spheres of life (i.e., morality/ethics) where science is not equipped to guide us. It would be entirely wrong to think that Wittgenstein was anti-science, nor did he think that “theorizing” about things was inherently problematic. Prior to philosophy, he studied engineering, and there’s no reason to think he saw any discord between technological pursuits, scientific studies, and, say, art or philosophy. Wittgenstein was drawn in by engineering and philosophy alike. The rub comes when we transfer expectations we (rightly) have in the scientific method to art or philosophy. To put this another way, Wittgenstein was fond of comparing aesthetics to ethics, drawing out the similarity of intuition and even taste that helps reveal how both “beauty” and “goodness” are not things that we can contain in our logical rationality; the fullness of beauty and goodness spill over beyond our categories and theories that exist only in discursive rationality/language. Hence Wittgenstein was not afraid to compliment mystics and mystical traditions that embraced wonder and mystery as meaningful realities superseding language. He respected these traditions because they reflected and wondered on beauty, being, the good, and more as meaningful realities that cannot be contained within scientific thinking.

Building on this, when we bring scientific expectations to questions of ethics or beauty, we all too easily take shortcuts and make mistakes, and here again following or questioning the language we use can help reveal these mistakes. Autonomy, for instance, has a long history of debate and theory within philosophy, but for many beginning bioethics students, this single category/term becomes a “home base” catch-all that takes away the nuanced and difficult task of bioethics. Autonomy can become a way of saying “to each their own” even if/when that may include self-harm. “Autonomy,” hence, can rightly be a sort of battlefield for substantive differences and disagreements on what is best or can be language that is uttered without intention as though we all know what it is already. In this latter case, we’ve simply taken a shortcut and not done the hard work needed to ask deeply: what is the good that’s possible in this moment? Relatedly, utilitarianism is too often a shortcut proposition. After all, in very simple terms, who will deny that the greatest good should be sought for the greatest number? This language can be put forth, gathering momentum and consensus, and yet what remains behind “utilitarianism” is the unanswered question of “what is the good?” in the first place? Hence, in a Wittgensteinian spirit, philosophers such as Tristram Engelhardt and Anne MacLean note that utilitarianism is calculation of sorts that disguises the unanswered question: what is “utility” and the “good” being sought in the first place?

In what way would you like your book to affect how bioethics is taught or understood by scholars and students?

In the end, I mostly hope readers of this book will pause and reflect further on the type of thinking or methods we employ in bioethics. Whether they agree or not with mine or anyone else’s ethical positions is secondary; what comes first—and very much furthers meaningful ethical dialogue!—is to attend carefully to what we mean by the words we utter, and more so, to our ways of life. For Wittgenstein, the way we live is much more important than the words we use, and yet bioethics carries a strong propensity to be trapped within unexamined language games. The result is often bleak, for we end up taking short cuts instead of facing the foundational challenges bioethics brings to our attention. What is the good life? What is meaningful? Why does Wittgenstein see a deep association between our human responses to beauty and ethics? These are vital questions for bioethics, and even amidst our deepest differences and presuppositions, engaging these questions sincerely can draw a community of learners together in peace.

Learn More or Order:

Ethics Lost in Modernity: Reflections on Wittgenstein and Bioethics (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2023).
Ethics Lost in Modernity is available through Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Praise for Ethics Lost in Modernity:

“Drawing on Wittgenstein, Matthew Vest provides an account of the development of bioethics that is at once critical and constructive. You have the sense that this is a book someone needed to write, and Vest has now done it. Hopefully more bioethics will follow his example.” —Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School, emeritus.

Emily Watters is a Bioethics Student Assistant at the Center. Emily is a third-year microbiology major with a minor in bioethics. She primarily assists in course support and ongoing projects.