“I want to bring philosophical reflection into policy choices and social debates”

Marcel Verweij appointed Professor of Philosophical Ethics at Utrecht University as of 1 April

portretfoto Marcel Verweij. Half-totaal, kale witte man met bril voor raam in Ethiek Instituut
Prof. dr. Marcel Verweij

Marcel Verweij has been appointed Professor of Philosophical Ethics at Utrecht University as of 1 April. With this chair, he researches how current ethical issues can have meaning for the forming of ethical theories, and vice versa. Verweij himself mostly works in the field of ethics in prevention and public-health policy.

A practical view on philosophical ethics

“My vision on philosophical ethics is that it should be meaningful for practical questions in civilians, policy makers, healthcare providers and other professionals' personal or professional lives. That's beautiful and sometimes exciting work. During the corona pandemic, it was very much needed. Together with colleagues in medical ethics, I developed the triage protocol for the intensive care units.”

Critical, ethical analysis of policy is necessary and sometimes confrontational

“In the many public and political discussions on coercive measures, I also tried to analyse and clarify arguments. Often hoping to prevent polarisation, but it's almost unavoidable in such a crisis that a critical analysis of the policy options sometimes also escalates matters. Fortunately, many civilians, professionals and politicians paid attention to ethical reflection.”

The Faculty of Humanities gains a professor who wants to introduce philosophical reflection into professional practices, policy choices and social debates, and also really sees that as the core of academic work. Verweij sees many opportunities: “The chair enables me to also communicate and realise that vision within philosophy.”

I often see myself as a bridge builder between theory and practice. Although that's not a good metaphor, as those two are supposed to be intertwined. There shouldn't have to be a bridge there.

The Faculty of Humanities gains a professor who wants to introduce philosophical reflection into professional practices, policy choices and social debates, and also really sees that as the core of academic work. Verweij sees many opportunities: “The chair enables me to also communicate and realise that vision within philosophy.”

“I often see myself as a bridge builder, and in this case, it's also about bridges between theory and practice. Although that's not a good metaphor, as those two are supposed to be intertwined. There shouldn't have to be a bridge there.”

Not theory, but practice as a starting point

Ethics in practice does not mean you always reason from an abstract philosophical theory, according to Verweij. “It is often necessary to take practice as a starting point, to have sufficient attention for the concrete context of a dilemma. A next step is to investigate the meaning of concepts like responsibility or solidarity in that context. And such reflection also requires more comprehensive ideas or theories of what is good and right.”

“What kind of moral value is solidarity actually and is it only meaningful if we're already feeling sympathetic? Or should we also have sympathy for people in distress we feel less connected to? Those are important questions in times of social polarisation. They are very relevant to how we think about the future of healthcare, especially with the current strain on healthcare.”

Ethical view on vaccinating in times of vaccination doubt

Together with legal philosopher Roland Pierik, Verweij wrote a book on the regulation of vaccination in times of vaccination hesitancy, which will be released this year. “Even before the corona pandemic, there was much discussion on whether or not participation in vaccination programmes can be without obligations. And during the crisis, that debate exploded,” Verweij noticed. “But what exactly does ‘compulsory vaccination’ mean? Is such a compulsion even conceivable? And under which conditions is the government allowed to apply coercion or pressure? In our book, we analyse the various constitutional rights which are conflicting in this field.”

No academic can do without ethics, but to ethicists, contact with those other sciences is just as crucial.

Illustratie vaccinatietwijfel © iStockphoto.com/Inna Miller
© iStockphoto.com/Inna Miller

“We show what kind of factors should be included in a careful consideration. The argumentation is more than a philosophical-ethical analysis. In the end, all kinds of epidemiological and social factors are decisive.”

Utrecht has an expertise in the field of practically-applicable ethical research

“The Ethics Institute, in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, is a perfect place for these kinds of reflections,” according to Verweij. “There is very much expertise here in the theoretical field as well as in social issues involving matters like climate change, social-economic inequality, healthcare and the development of artificial intelligence.”

“And exactly here in Utrecht, it's possible to study these issues in-depth with students of philosophy, applied ethics, artificial intelligence and Philosophy, Politics & Economics. Besides that, I'm looking forward to collaborating with the UMCU and colleagues from other faculties such as Social and Behavioural Sciences. No academic can do without ethics, but to ethicists, contact with those other sciences is just as crucial.”

In the past ten years, Marcel Verweij was the chair holder of Philosophy at Wageningen University. He has been employed before at RadboudUMC, the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University. He is a member of the Insured Package Advisory Committee (Adviescommissie Pakket) of the Dutch National Health Care Institute (Zorginstituut) and advises on the composition of the basic health-care insurance package in that position. Verweij has had countless advisory roles in the Health Council of the Netherlands (Gezondheidsraad), the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organisations in the field of public health. Together with law philosopher Roland Pierik, Verweij wrote a book on the regulation of vaccination in times of vaccination doubt, which will be released by MITpress this year.