Community Consultation in a Liberal Society
When new laws are being considered to regulate emerging technologies, it is common to engage in a formal consultation process to assess community views, especially in sensitive areas where views may differ widely. However, it is not clear how we should assess the responses to such consultation. If the respondents with the most extreme views, at either end of the political or ethical spectrum, speak in large numbers or strong language, their submissions surely cannot be added up and given the weight of the majority in determining the course of future action. The ‘silent majority’ of the community may not participate in the consultation process at all. Even if they do participate more fully, it will often not be possible to find a compromise solution that offers something to everyone.
Professor Charlesworth considered these issues in his ground-breaking book, Bioethics in a Liberal Society (Charlesworth M, Bioethics in a liberal society. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993). He said that there are some issues on which community consensus on a core set of values will not be possible. To move forward, a liberal society must accept that there will be a range of views but however discordant those views appear to be, it may still be possible to identify matters on which there is agreement. Those matters may then form the basis of a policy that is widely accepted, even if it is not what the individual participants would have chosen initially. This approach may be illustrated by examining recent community consultation in Australia concerning research involving human embryos.
KeywordsEmerging technologies Ethics Law Policy Consultation Embryo research
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