Interview: Dr. Flores Pt. 2
In this second half of a two-part interview series, Dr. Flores speaks on the role of bioethics in health care, ethics and tradition, and how ethics affects the everyday. Dr. Flores is an ethicist whose work includes religious ethics, Catholic and Latinx theology, and bioethics, among others. In particular, her research looks at issues of migration, labor, consumption, race and ethnicity, gender, family, and ecology.
In terms of medical ethics, each provider in the healthcare system may have a different idea of what is best for a patient. More generally, how do we reconcile what is the best way to reach the common good of society, when we disagree on what the common good might be in the first place?
That’s a really important question. Actually UVA religious studies has been on the forefront of thinking through this problem (especially in the work of Jim Childress, who is now professor emeritus here at UVA), in trying to think through frameworks for allowing for particularity and diversity within systems while still respecting a basic set of rights that people have, regardless of where they come from or what their religious beliefs are. A great example of this is the principle of autonomy. Now autonomy gets a really bad reputation from a lot of different people- ‘it’s a really selfish principle, it’s not concerned with community,’ etc. And of course, the study of autonomy reveals that even thinking about human agency and the ways in which humans act, can’t really be extricated from thinking about community. So thinking about individual action has to happen within the context of relationships, even if we’re focusing on what it is that individuals have the right to do or not to do. But also, understandings of autonomy and personal agency vary across communities- across religious communities, across cultures, across regions of the country. So a principle such as autonomy- even though it strives to ensure that we have basic procedures in place to make sure that people aren’t being taken advantage of, or their rights aren’t being disrespected- also has some breathing room to allow for the specific situations of people in all of their diversity to be respected at the same time. But, I do think it’s important in a diverse society like ours, for the common good, that we respect a very baseline set of rights and privileges that all of us have access to. In addition, we should have moral frameworks that allow us to respond to particular situations with sensitivity and with specificity if there’s great need for that, but there might not be. In my mind, it’s a matter of justice that everyone have those rights.
We’ve talked a little about ethics and tradition. In what ways do morality and tradition work together, and in what ways do they work against? How can these two institutions be best integrated, going forward?
Well, the intellectual tradition in which I work thinks of tradition in two different senses. First of all, in terms of that which is carried forward, and then also in terms of just what we do. So tradition simply refers to the practices that we have, the way that we structure our life as a community, or our community beliefs. I think that the word tradition, through political discourse, picks up this residue of meaning old-fashioned or stuffy, or unable to change. In my mind, traditions don’t need to be that way necessarily, and certainly the religious traditions that I work with most, such as Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Judaism don’t need to be this way. There are deep traditions, but also there’s a way in which reflecting on those traditions, through the lenses of morality, constantly moves those traditions forward, and changes them, enriching them even. So a great example of this, with Catholicism, is thinking on gender. There was time in Church theology in which women were conceived as ‘mis-begotten men’, lacking full reason, and in that way, lacking full humanity. Now we know that’s not true, so the tradition has tried to respond to that aberration, that wrong belief, with another tradition, which is that of human equality, and the constant assertion and reassertion that all human beings have dignity, and at least within the Catholic Christian framework, are created in God’s image. Thus all humans have not just equal rights with each other, but are sacred and precious, regardless of gender or sexual identity, etc. So my point is that traditions, even internally, can allow for correction based on their own moral principles. But it’s also possible that traditions can be subject to interrogation from other traditions, and reflection across those traditions can cause correction from that perspective as well. A good example of this is the way that democratic traditions have had such broad appeal across religious and cultural traditions, and have offered to ancient religious beliefs and practices a breath of fresh of air that has underscored teachings about equality, about dignity, about worth, about justice, about rights. So there’s kind of this ongoing dynamic both within traditions, with self-correction happening there, but also between traditions. And I think UVA is actually my ideal place to think about how it is that traditions kind of can interrogate each other, because there’s so much that we can learn from reflecting together: ‘how are they doing it over there? Oh, that’s interesting.’ That might present to me possibility to reflect on one’s tradition in a way that they never thought of, through the process of common moral reflection.
I’d just like to wrap up with a concluding question: we’ve talked about how ethics affects our everyday life. What are some ways that we as students, professors, and members of the university community, can introduce ethical thinking to our own everyday actions?
For me, it’s been really helpful to try to think about how my personal day-to-day schedule might influence the people around me. So I have this habit of waking up in the morning and going to Bodo’s, and I get a bagel and cream cheese, and a soda. And sure, that decision has effects on me, but whenever I do that I think ‘how am I getting to Bodo’s?’ Well, I’m driving in my car and thus contributing to traffic along the route to the restaurant. But I’m having this nice meal for breakfast and there’s people in Charlottesville who are hungry. Or, I’m going to breakfast at this restaurant, not that restaurant. I’m patronizing a local business rather than a corporation. So just trying to think of other options and possibilities that could be, in relation to my daily practice. And also just trying to be mindful of the fact that even though I’m a particular person with individuality, I’m in relationship with people in ways that I can’t even see directly. There are webs of relationships in which I act that can affect the lives and wellbeing of other people. I think especially when we’re in college and we’re so busy just trying to get to class and do our work and get good grades, it’s easy to kind of go into our silo and to not really think about anything except for our own well-being. And that seems to be appropriate in a certain way, because college is hard, and it’s a busy time of life. But I do think that if we as society, we as people, who on a basic level care about the flourishing of other humans, want to live lives that are more moral, we do need to stop and think about how our actions influence both people around us and people we may have never met, and never will meet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.