Interview with Dr. Flores Pt 1.
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nichole Flores of the University of Virginia’s religious studies department. Dr. Flores is an ethicist who studies religious ethics, Catholic and Latinx theology, and bioethics. In particular, her research looks at issues of migration, labor, consumption, race and ethnicity, gender, family, and ecology. This is the first of a two-part interview series, in which Dr. Flores speaks on her background, what bioethics means to her, and the intersection between religion and ethics.
Could you give some background on how you got to where you are today?
How I got my start- that’s an interesting question. Actually my main area of interest is the relationship between religion and politics. I’ve always been really fascinated by how they interact with each other, and after doing research on that general area, I started to branch out to think about practical ethics more generally, specifically topics such as migration, economic ethics, and others. So throughout my academic career, I’ve been really interested in how various ethical theories, ideas about justice, ideas about what constitutes a human person, how these influence our practical decision making skills both in the form of particular political or economic policies, but also how that influences our own personal decisions on a daily basis. Just in terms of how we treat people, or the decisions we make about what we’re going to buy, or how we’re going to act in a particular situation.
How does this play out in your own life? Do you have any particular example of how ethics might affect everyday action- grocery shopping, for example?
Well, my family likes to tell me that as an ethicist, I have an overactive conscience. I’m always on the lookout for how my own practices might be influencing the life of another person, either on a positive note or on a negative note. So I do especially pay attention to the kinds of shopping that I do, trying to buy food and clothing and services that contribute to economies that promote human flourishing and justice. But it’s very interesting, particularly concerning bioethics, that my ethical thinking really follows me into my own interaction with the health care system. I’m constantly thinking about the ethical implications of particular situations that I find myself in, whether it’s in terms of my own healthcare, or the care of my family, or thinking about larger public policies such as the current healthcare debate in the United States. My mind is always at work trying to understand the way that human decision making on a personal level, influences people both around me but also society as a whole.
What would you say the term ‘bioethics’ means to you?
I think it’s the consideration of practical situations and cases in relation to various ethical traditions, and simply trying to shed light on these particular situations through reflection with various moral traditions. One of the things I love about bioethics, broadly construed, is that it allows for us to think within big frameworks, such as the virtue framework. The virtue framework is one of the main ones that I really utilize in my own ethic thinking. So, thinking about how it is that we’re developing habits and practices that foster human flourishing and justice, either on a personal level or a broader level. But bioethics, given its interdisciplinary nature, allows for reflection of more than one tradition at a time. It allows us to do a little moral hodgepodge, if you will, and bring together the best of various traditions to bear on particular cases, whether in healthcare, or having to do with well-being more generally. So it is an infamously difficult term to define, but I think some of that breadth allows for more integrative cross-disciplinary thinking that can help us to understand cases in all of their dimensions, rather than just on one level - just on a religious level, or anthropological level, or sociological level, for example.
You mentioned that one of your strong areas of interest is religious ethics. I would say that there’s definitely a difference between the ethics that you may encounter in medical school, for example, versus the ethics that you may encounter in say, the Catholic Church. Where is the intersection between these separate codes of ethics, and how do we integrate them in everyday ethics?
Well, I would say this for all religious traditions, including those I try to focus on in my classes on bioethics. If you are practicing medicine, you’re encountering people whose worldviews are shaped by one or more of these traditions. You can’t practice medicine in the Commonwealth of Virginia without encountering Catholics, for example. It’s just not possible. So while I don’t think it’s appropriate to enact laws that are based on just one religious perspective - I’m pro-disestablishment of religion, pro-religious freedom - it’s really important that practitioners at all levels, whether that’s on the level of clinic, checking people in and getting people evaluated or in relation to the hospital administration for example, to understand that religious beliefs can shape how people understand themselves as individuals, how they understand their relationships with their families and communities, and how it affects their finances, and that those factors are significant to the treatment of the whole person. I think the best of medical ethics acknowledges that we’re not just dealing with a body, but that all humans, regardless of their religious tradition, have many dimensions, and that medicine at its best can bring health, healing, and wholeness to people. So I do think it’s important from that perspective, but I also have a lot of students coming through my classes who are just interested in finding work at hospitals, and Catholic hospitals and medical schools can be really amazing. They are some wonderful places to work, and it’s very helpful to know the tradition, even if it’s not one’s own. Neither Catholic hospitals nor Catholic universities require students or employees to be Catholic in order to work there, but understanding some of the moral issues that are at stake is really important, even for somebody who has nothing to do with that tradition. So there’s a lot of different resources that can be of service to someone who’s interested in medical ethics proper. Not just Catholic theology and ethics, but religious studies more broadly can bring a lot of resources to bear on medical ethics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.