Root Menu

Mike Parker

In conversation with John Reed

Photo of Mike Parker

There are various ways you can describe what I do. That is, ‘bioethics’. There is a bit of history like most subjects. There is a historical process by which these things evolve and become used. In the past people would have talked about medical ethics and there they would have been focusing very much on the professional conduct of doctors, being honest, don't sleep with your patients, that kind of thing.  But the development of new technologies, the ability to keep people alive who previously would have died, the ability to do similar things at the beginning of life, very young babies to keep them alive, and various other technological developments have introduced new ethical dilemmas into medicine like consent, euthanasia, these kinds of issues. And of course society changes as well. People in society have become less willing to take what health professionals or other professionals say at face value, judges, politicians. We as a society, and I think this is a good thing, have started to say, 'Well why do you think that, tell me, give reasons why you made one decision or another?'. Those things have led to this growing interest, and scandals as well, Shipman, Alderhay, the Nazi medical experiments, have led to this discipline, ‘bioethics’. Discipline is perhaps putting it too strongly, this area, a number of questions and areas of concern.

Increasingly bioethics stretches outside of medicine, so it is not just about illness or disease but it is about energy, crops and the idea that we might intervene in people biologically even if they are not sick, enhancing, greater intelligence, choosing the colour of the eyes of our children...There are two ways of thinking about it, one is that there is this area of concern, all these problems and questions out there which we see in the newspaper which is why it is an exciting area of work, and another way in which people use the term of bioethics which is as an approach to these questions, as an academic discipline. It's concerned with the ethical and moral issues arising out of the developments in biology and medicine in that broad sense.

The work that I have done, working very closely with scientists and health professionals and patients, my background is in philosophy so I try to think about it from a moral philosophy point of view and try and bring those tools to bear, but I also think that good philosophy in this area needs to be engaged with the problems. What I try to do is - is not just apply philosophy to problems, but put my philosophy into a situation where it can actually be challenged by realities of these problems. So I might come with a particular theoretical approach and find that I come away having changed my approach in terms of theory and also practice. I think actually I've got this view that, it's like meaning, I think it is practice, engagement and relationships which are the issue. I tend to think that if you want to look for the meaning of what people are doing or if you want to work out problems or work theoretically the way you do that is in conversation and deliberation and engaging with people. It's in the way you speak and act, that's where you have to look for people's minds in a way, if that makes sense. One thing I do which is an example, there is a clinical genetics unit in Oxford which covers a very large area and basically deals with people with genetic illnesses or members of families with genetic illnesses. And once a month I go in there and run a discussion group with the counsellors, nurses and geneticists. They bring cases that have been problematic during the month and I get them to present the case and then I facilitate a discussion focusing on the moral issues which arise. For example in information in families, when two people do not want to talk to each other, or when you discover that the child isn't the child of the man who thinks they are the father. One of the things I really like about genetics is the fact that it offers an interesting way of thinking about what it means to be a human being in relationships with other people, because it constantly throws up these relational problems in an interesting and practical way. A lot of the problems in genetics are not actually genetic problems. They are problems about people not getting on with each other or people who have not seen each other for a long time, with relationships breaking up. That is why I'm working in it. I also help run a sizeable research programme which has three elements. One is developing genetic science, doing basic research. The other is developing clinical service and trying to make sure that the new science informs that practice. And the third bit is looking at the ethical and social and legal and psychological issues that arise when you do that, when you take genetics and develop a new service working with families. Most of the work we are doing at the moment is about gene mutations which have the potential to cause people to die very suddenly of heart disease, it is very dramatic and tends to be something that happens in childhood or teenage years too, so you can see that raises dramatic psychological issues potentially and social issues in families. Once you've been told you've got this risk this changes the way you see yourself and the way you live your life and the way you talk about yourself. The good thing about the research apart from all that is that I work very closely with scientists, I work very closely with people working in the Centre for Human Genetics. So I can talk to them about their research and think quite early on about what the social implications and ethical implications might be. It is not actually that detached at all. My view is that there is a place for very abstract, hard philosophy and I enjoy doing that myself, but there is also a place for really trying to do hard philosophy in a practical setting, and that adds, that is a particular type of discipline that I find interesting. The work that I do is very multidisciplinary in that sense, I manage a team which includes psychologists, lawyers, a health economist, sociologists, anthropologists, a whole bunch of people in disciplines which I am not an expert in. What I try to do is facilitate the process and get them to think in innovative ways, get them to think in ways which are engaged with the science and patients, so we do work with patient groups as well.

You talked about dangerous sports! It's a bit like juggling. There is a lot going on, it's really exciting, every week there is something new. You open the newspaper and if someone asks you in the pub 'What do you do?' you say 'Well I do that'. It's there everyday, it's something that people think about, reproductive choice, genetics, cloning, it is something which is very rapidly changing, it's hard to keep up-to-date.  It's a subject which is actually impossible to be, in some sense, an expert in; you have to be creative.

Innovation is chaotic. We are trying to introduce more vision and strategy. It's important that people don't see that ethics is about stopping science or about stopping medical progress, it's about saying 'Where are we going?' 'Why are we doing this rather than that?' 'What is the best thing to do?' 'What is the best way to spend our resources?' It is about raising awareness and developing that sort of strategic approach to these things.

Before I got into this work, the reason I got into ethics was because I was, I did philosophy before, but I also used to run a hostel for homeless teenagers in London. I did that for about 10 years and the same sort of thing, you are dealing with quite a chaotic situation, these teenagers, and some of the ethical issues and moral issues that come up are dramatic. We had a Somali refugee there, there was a war in Somalia, he had nowhere else to go, it was snowing in London, and he attacked one of the residents with a knife. And basically I was in the situation where if I wanted to keep people in the house safe I had to kick him out, but of course kicking out a refugee which has nowhere else to go in London in the freezing cold is an ethical problem in its own right! So those kind of problems, people with mental health problems, those were the sort of things that first started me thinking about ethics, why this is important, and then I got into academic life after that.

It is certainly true that in our, whatever the right world is, in our culture, the world we currently live in, there are many threads, many moral threads from different traditions. There are moral beliefs some of which have religious origins which permeate through society. There will be moral principles like those to do with liberty. There will be consequentialist focus on harms and benefits and the idea of the future. The 'problem' with that is that those moral threads in our thinking and culture are not necessarily always pulling in the same direction. For example I might have a strong belief in personal freedom but might also have a very strong belief that I should benefit people and care for other people where possible. So the obvious medical situation, Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for their child and you say 'Okay if I want to respect their choice and personal freedom then I should respect their beliefs but if I want to benefit them and avoid harm I should intervene and give them a blood transfusion'. So what I'd like to try to do is firstly help people see that there are moral issues, that it's not simply a technical or practical issue, and then to try and help them see that there are reasons, a whole range of reasons, for doing one thing or another. Helping them to get clear about the reasons and developing moral judgements so people can weigh reasons and make a decision, so they can justify why they went one way rather than another. My own view is that although my approach is based very strongly in the idea of respect for persons, whatever that means, that people are of some value and that the way they want to live their lives ought to be respected, the way that works out for me is in terms of encouraging discourse, conversations of a particular kind.

Basically I'm a liberal. Lots of liberals are very reluctant about saying illiberal things are wrong, I am not, I think there are some things that are wrong and I think you want a genuinely inclusive society in which people can live lives in their own way, but there have to be some limits to that. I don't think there is any consensus, we live in a culture where there is a whole range of moral practices and there is genuine disagreement. People have extremely strong moral views and some would like to have a society which was structured in such a way that people were forced to conform to it, and there are a lot of cultures, traditions and families that are like that.

It's carts and horses, why did I end up being involved in philosophy? Well I suppose it's because I'm that sort of person, quite reflective, and always had a tendency to think perhaps a bit too much about decisions. Interestingly enough I think to some extent being involved with philosophy has made me a bit less rationalistic. I've recognised a bit more the diversity of ways of thinking about things, and all these different approaches have advantages and disadvantages, there is no single... reason doesn't take you... reason only takes you so far, reason is a useful cluster of tools and clearly extremely important, but you also need other things. You do need to be able to feel your way through things and be able to be a bit creative, you need things to reason about, you need to create new ideas.

One thing that made a big difference to me was reading Wittgenstein's stuff. I think before I had read his work, for example, I had quite a strong idea that there was something inside my head called 'the understanding' or 'meaning' and I think his insight is an amazingly important one, which is that actually meaning and understanding if you want to find them you find them in the way we talk, the way we work, the way we interact. And it makes you as a person less inward looking, and more 'okay so that is where it is'. It makes it more obvious that it is a creative process, because you don't quite know what words are going to come out of your mouth when they come out, but it also makes it obvious that it is socially embedded, thinking and understanding are not something that you carry around in your head, although obviously there is a sense in which the body and the head are important, but basically it is maintained socially in relationships and conversations. And that in a sense is quite liberating because I had, like everyone, this teenage feeling that I had to get clear about what was inside my head, had to get it sorted out, the meaning of the universe. But the fact is you have to make understanding, it is not just there, it is a creative and interpersonal process, it is not something you can just do in your head. And that has enabled me to put more emphasis on making rather than finding.

In the short-term I've got all these people working on this research programme, around genetics, multidisciplinary research seeing how you can get a team of people who've got very different skills and backgrounds to work together. That is the short-term, to publish about that, because I think that kind of multidisciplinary thinking and involvement in science is crucial, it's not just crucial in medicine, its crucial about thinking about the environment, thinking about all sorts of things. If we can't think about them in a joined up way then it's just not going to be possible to deal with these problems. Professionally in the longer term I want to write a bit more about the philosophy side of things. I suppose I want to write something about moral development, there is a lot of philosophy and moral philosophy about process, principles, about decision-making, and there are a lot of arguments that say that the good society and the just society would be one in which people went about decision-making in this particular kind of way. So Rawls might be an example of that, and one thing I'm interested in is the extent to which those kind of approaches are dependent upon the extent to which there are those kind of people in the world. But ultimately I might give it up, I might just go and do something non philosophical, do something different. I've always had the view you should do different things in your life, not just one. That's one reason why I did the homelessness thing, 10 years, I've been in academic life for about eight years now. I'm not saying every 10 years but at some point I'd like to do something different, I don't know what that is, there are personal things, it is not just about theory.

I think ultimately it comes down to the fact that I'm interested in my own development and my own understanding. I think that it is important to pursue ideas through, it is important not to jump about too much and give things up but I also think that it is important to have a variety of experiences.

What I do outside of work changes with time, getting older, going through different phases. For the last five years or so I've put a lot of effort into philosophical writing, the work side of things. There are lots of things I do in terms of activities. The thing that I find that really helps me to switch off is going skiing. I don't do a lot of skiing but I go. And for some reason there is just something about it, being in the mountains, just doing the thing itself, as soon as I get there I'm just in a different place, and for the whole week I just don't think about anything other than what I'm doing. You have to let go of it, stand on top of steep slopes and just go for it, and once you've gone for it there is not much you can do, you just have to go with the rhythm of the thing. That helps, that was just someone from work, maybe about 10 years ago, someone from work was going and I just went along, it was just amazing, a very magical thing.

I live in London, so a lot of my life outside work is based around friends and city life, I love city life. I grew up in a very small village in Somerset, small town, and living in London I am just fascinated by that. So a lot of what I do is London life, going out to bars, the cinema and theatre, a walk by the river, I go running by the river round by the Houses of Parliament. I enjoy just feeling like I'm in the middle of the city, that helps a lot. Quite a few of my friends are in academic life I suppose and we talk about work a little bit, but not very much, we mostly just go out in the evening eat and talk about the world or whatever we are doing.

My family used to be small, it is not small anymore, I have got a brother and sister, my brother is a management consultant in Denmark and has got two children, has lived there for about 15 years and my sister lives in Bristol and she is a nurse and has three kids. My parents, my father was a scientist and my mum did the whole range of different things to do with finance, and they live quite near Bath in the country, and I speak to someone from my family every day more or less. I have quite a close family.

My girlfriend is Italian and lives in Italy so there is a certain amount of going to Italy which is quite new and exciting. I don't know how it will work out, we will see what happens, but at the moment that is good, there are cheap flights and I go over there quite often. She is a philosopher too, she does it in Italy. Other things I like, I love cooking, I like art, music. I read novels. I had a really bad arts education, a bad education all round really, I didn't read any of the classics at all at school. So it is quite nice to be able to read books that I've heard of that I've never read before, to read classics for the first time is really good, being older. I read classics now and again, but mostly contemporary fiction. It is not just about entertainment.

One of things I really enjoy about my job which I haven't mentioned is the craft of writing. I could see myself doing anything, any job, which involves writing. I just like getting the words so that they work, there is an aesthetic and craft element to what I do. One of the reasons I read books is for that, to get a sense of...I like the way people work with words. So deep thoughts, stories that resonates with me and the meaning of my life, in the way I live. I don't read in academic life, it is not actually possible to read an awful lot of stuff, I read papers quickly because I'm trying to write stuff but the idea that a philosopher is someone or an academic is someone who reads a lot of books is wrong. You can't, you are too busy getting grants, doing work, writing stuff. So my reading...I spend a lot of time with people in this area and I hear a lot of talks so I am taking information in and I am developing my understanding.

It is interesting, the efficiency question, my basic position is that it would benefit me tremendously to have more space in my working life, to have a day a week where I just sit and read books. It is bizarre that an academic cannot do that. But having said that I am hugely more productive and my ideas have developed much more through all this constant activity and being busy.

The fact is that behaviour wise, in work and other areas of life, in contemporary society, we have this conveyor belt feeling, which depends on the fact that people are essentially dissatisfied and people's dissatisfaction is what makes them buy new things or...I think we live in a society which is designed in a way, created in such a way, that a focus is put on deficiencies and absences which I think is an unhealthy way of being and it is quite easy to end up getting caught up in it.

In general my personality is happy. I'm an optimist and pretty flexible about things so that makes my day-to-day experience of life reasonably positive and reasonably healthy, but that isn't necessarily the right way, sometimes there are good reasons to be unhappy about things. Sometimes I can be a bit too easy going and I'll realise after a while that actually there are good reasons to be upset about things. I have good friends, I live in the centre of a fantastic city, I have a good relationship, my work is creative, a bit busy but essentially things are good. But it hasn't always been that way in life, of course like everyone else there have been good times and bad times. I think I'm reasonably balanced.

Some of the bad times have been of my own making, a lot of them, lots of big things. I went to university straight after school and I left because I got there and I hated it, it was hideous, I hated being with students, I hated being taught in that way. I think to be honest leaving university was one of the best things that I did in retrospect. I left and I thought 'What am I doing?' 'Why am I doing this?' I started to worry about it, 'How should I live?' I think my life put me in a position where I had to start thinking about that kind of stuff. I guess I must be a bit like that anyway. I got interested in philosophy because I started a degree course in education, I worked for a couple of years after leaving Uni the first time round and then started the degree, and there just happened to be an inspiring person who ran a little philosophy element in the course and that was interesting. I thought 'I can do that', and it sparked me off. So it's not just internal and is not just events in the world and my life. Meeting inspirational people can be important too sometimes. I had a girlfriend at the time, she was a lot older than me, a teacher, and she was quite inspiring in a way. It is about relationships as well as internal character traits or whatever that means.

I think one of the things that goes into the more personal side is authenticity or integrity which is quite important to me. Not in an abstract way but a personal way. It is important to be myself and live in a way which accords with my feelings and beliefs. There have been times in my life where I have made big decisions. I have really thought it through, 'Should I do this?', 'Should I do that?' But largely what I've done is fairly intuitive and I've tried almost deliberately to do that, to do what feels right, and that has always been quite important with me. And that is in tension with my work because my work requires working through in detail arguments and that doesn't come naturally to me, I don't think.

Relationships have been extremely important in my life and have been key things that have given me an insight. And once I've got the insights I've got this sense of orientation, they are like doorways. And so, for example, when I left university and I was basically just working I met the woman I mentioned earlier who was a teacher who was just someone, we related in a way, talking about novels and stuff, that made me realise that there was just this whole world of ways of thinking and intellectual life which I just had never thought about before and I didn't realise was there. And that was transforming. As I said I met this guy who taught philosophy in this one unit in the course and the same thing happened. I just suddenly realised, it was like a whole new world opening up, and there were probably four or five years between those two things, and similar things have happened at different stages and it has quite often been meeting a person. I don't mean a romantic relationship, I mean meeting someone who was stimulated me and made me see things in a different way. Usually it's a particular type of conversation, conversation is not just about words, its about a particular type of relationship which makes a difference. Largely it's about trying to make sense of the world. We can have this model, model is the wrong word, but I can have a structure of meaning that I'm living with and then someone says something, or there is a relationship which kind of shifts things enough to see the whole thing differently. And then the whole thing just changes and I think that's partly what I mean by being intuitive, that I tend to look at the big picture rather than the details, and it takes something quite dramatic or profound to make the big picture change. But at the level of detail things change all that time, and I think there are a large number of people who focus on the 'What am I going to do today, what am I going to do next year?' I do as well to some extent but mostly my orientation is towards 'What is this is all about'? And at that level things change much more slowly even if they change much more... it takes something quite important to shift them… Conversations are key catalysts for that kind of thing, not every conversation, the majority of conversations just happen and wash over you, but every now and again... I hope it will happen again! I hope so! There is always the possibility of it happening, it is to do with the resonance between you being ready as a person and the conversation being right.  Every day I'm probably having a conversation which could have that affect on me if I was in the right state of mind, but they are pretty rare these occurrences. Hopefully I'm going to live for a long time and hopefully I'll have several new insights between now and when I drop dead, you never know it's all a bit creative and unpredictable. Those things happen when they happen.

I don't think it's just about coming into contact with a diversity of people, obviously you need the resources, the conversations have to be there, but it's also being open to change at that kind of level. It's easy, I was going to say as one gets older but that's not true, its easy in life to get hold of some basic principles and just hold onto them. It is often easier unless something dramatic comes along to not be open to new ways of thinking. So I think you have to be actively open to these sorts of things, some people just naturally are I guess, but I think it is a skill, not really the right word, it is an orientation to the world, to experience, being open to the possibility that things might be different in the future to the way things are today. I don't think it is just about experience it's about the way you live your life, if that makes sense!

February 2005