From bioethics to medical anthropology to humanities and back: A year in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the past year, where I will be in the future, and how the student fellowship has impacted me. I still hope to contribute to the Bill of Health blog going forward, but as my last official post as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow, I would be remiss if I did not express my sincere gratitude to everyone at the Petrie-Flom Center, the faculty and staff, the other student fellows, and especially my mentors: Professors I. Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, and Intisar A. Rabb.

My own project took a few different turns this year. My original proposal was to explore the ways in which bioethics and biomedical issues will play a significant role in reviving the dialectic between secular scholars and religious authority. Ayman Shabana rightly argues that respect for Islamic religious norms is essential for the legitimacy of bioethical standards in the Muslim context, wherein he attributes the legitimating power of these norms—as well as their religious and spiritual underpinnings—to their moral, legal, and communal dimensions. Building off of Shabana’s work, my initial argument held that the relationship between the secular and religious worlds is important because the discourse between the two, although often presumed to be dichotomous, is not necessarily antithetical nor is it impassable. This led me back to the arguments of the venerable philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor whereby, in critiquing the concept of secularism itself along with its historical contexts, furthered my argument and helped me to clarify the significant role that religion plays vis-à-vis categorical issues such as fundamental beliefs and metaphysics. I still maintain this, and it is something I continue to work on, although I decided to take my project in another direction.

In light of my prior training which has spanned different traditions and different disciplines—namely, humanities and philosophy followed by Islamic law and theology—I did not simply wish to write an “Islamic perspective” of bioethics, which is already a rather “Western” field insofar as much of the underlying philosophy, definitions, and systematic process has been defined by American and European thinkers and institutions. To be sure, there are some bioethicists doing important work on relational autonomy and the influence of diverse cultural frameworks, such as Dr. Vardit Ravitsky, from whom I benefited enormously. At the same time, I knew from the outset that I did not wish to produce a project that would be accessible only to specialists in the field of Islamic studies or limited to an Arabic-speaking audience. Surely, no tradition is a monolith—neither Islam nor the West—but in broad terms, I wished to put the two into deeper conversation with one another, and thus I sought to bridge the traditions via the sphere of biomedical issues and ethics as they pertain to psychiatry—a field wherein biomedicine (brain, body, empirics) and culture (behavior, religion, ethics) meet. This led me more toward medical anthropology.

My newfound project took shape, in part, as a way to contest the hegemonic powers of professional bodies such as bioethics committees and other bureaucratic institutions. If we allow diverse experience and ethnography to inform us, however, we recognize that on-the-ground knowledge matters, and that how our sensibilities are formed and how they are developed are as uniquely significant to the “art of living” with regard to our personal belief and psychology as are the newest advances on the scientific front. We understand the world not only by what we deem right and wrong but also what those choices mean in the context of something greater than ourselves, whether that be God or an afterlife, or whether it be our family and loved ones. In this respect, religion has much wisdom and guidance to offer, as do the rich moral values that we normally associate with religious and virtue ethics traditions—values such as courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Lest lawyers or economists or scientists question the value of religious tradition or cardinal virtues per their pragmatic or measurable value on a “cost benefit analysis” scale, or even deem them irrelevant, I would argue that we ought not to assume that the current neoliberal paradigm is necessarily the most humane or even the most efficient framework for society and health. A case in point: Tyler VanderWeele has produced compelling quantitative data along with carefully researched empirical evidence about the relationship between forgiveness and health; he addresses human well-being and flourishing not solely on the level of morbidity or income, but rather in broader terms such as meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.

Hence the last iteration of my project looks specifically at mental health and the field of psychiatry in an effort to argue for the importance of incorporating spirituality and religion into the culture and practice of medicine as a way to more humanely and more holistically treat those who do not readily fall within the secular paradigm wherein the body is deemed as separate from the mind. At the intersection of ethics, philosophy, and medical anthropology, my research explores the religious and cultural dimensions of medicine as well as the relationship between health and social change. With a particular focus on psychiatry and neuroscience, my interest is in how morality operates both on the interpersonal level and as embedded in the ordering of social life. Thus I examine the ways in which culture shapes our ideas about mental illness and how medicine and health are intimately bound up in a dialectical relationship with culture.

Reflecting on this entire year and everything that I have learned about the field and about myself, I firmly believe that my true calling is medicine; my research has confirmed this for me, but so has my intuition and my passion to help people. Before each paper workshop, Professor Glenn Cohen has the speaker present a few words about their own personal narrative and how they became interested in their subject. The wisdom of this is exercise is now palpable. Moving forward, as I transition to prepare for MCATs followed by medical school and then ultimately training as a psychiatrist, I will always remember fondly these days as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow in which I wrestled with difficult question about life and meaning. It has been an illuminating experience to have had this rich opportunity to engage in research that has much meaning to me and, I hope, to others, along with practical and personal benefit. I am honoured to be part of the Petrie-Flom family.


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