Critical reflections upon the origins, nature, limits and impact of empirical bioethics
: a proposal for methodological transparency

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This is a literature-based study, examining the emergence and nature of empirical bioethics (EB) within the broader field of bioethics. It offers a proposal for methodological transparency – specifically, a checklist of criteria, which can identify research as genuine EB research and determine the extent to which it is assessable (and thus usable by a range of stakeholders).
The thesis opens with a critical exploration of both bioethics and EB. Essentially, EB, which has emerged recently, is a more grounded, contextually sensitive enterprise than its philosophical elder sibling. EB produces methodologies for ethical inquiry that integrate normative and empirical research to generate normative conclusions. This is a theoretically complex form of research, making its assessment challenging. Although EB deploys social science methodologies, the social sciences cannot assist with assessment, as they themselves experience difficulties with standard-setting. Furthermore, EB uses these methodologies differently, since it combines them with normative theories to generate explicit normative outcomes.
As bespoke assessment tools are indicated, I develop a (formal) checklist of four identification criteria and 10 transparency criteria, which are formulated as questions that stakeholders (including EB researchers, funding agencies, policymakers, reviewers and the general public) may ask of research. The identification criteria determine whether research is indeed EB. The transparency criteria then assist in assessing the assessability of an EB methodology, indicating to what extent EB research is transparent about core issues. The checklist is tested and refined using three different examples of research (by the Widdershoven group, Birchley and the End-of-Life Care Research Group).
The criteria do not enable assessment of the quality of a methodology or its outcomes. However, they appear to be usable and adequate, providing a preliminary step towards academic maturity and the reliability of EB research, which should help those active in or encountering EB to ask the necessary questions.
Date of Award20 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorJonathan C S Ives (Supervisor) & Richard Huxtable (Supervisor)


  • Empirical Ethics
  • Methodological
  • Checklist
  • Bioethics
  • Criteria

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