Kirstin Borgerson, assistant professor

A day in the life

Kirstin Borgerson, assistant professor


One of the things I love about philosophy is that we question anything and everything. Does the external world exist? Is it rational to be moral? There is nothing that you can't question in this discipline.

Debating health care ethics

Think of a time when you made a bad decision. Did anyone have a right to step in and stop you from making that bad decision?

When Kirstin Borgerson asks that question in her Health Care Ethics course, students start to talk. “I try to ask provocative questions,” she says with a smile. Philosophers are, by nature, provocateurs—it’s how they generate good debates and, ultimately, how they help us get closer to the truth.

“We move from talking about our own bad decisions to the question of when, how, or if we should intervene in the competent decisions made by others. That takes us into the debate over a patient’s right to refuse medical treatment.”

Dr. Borgerson believes that Dalhousie—a pillar of Atlantic Canada’s medical system, with nationally recognized expertise in bioethics—is a perfect place to ask critical questions about health care.

“One of the things I love about philosophy is that we question everything,” she says. “There is no assumption too sacred to be questioned.”

Facts and values

Anyone faced with conflicting medical advice has probably wondered how and when medical scientists are justified in saying that they really know something.

The epistemology of medicine is one of Dr. Borgerson’s areas of specialization. Her research looks at the many ways in which values shape scientific knowledge, and the sorts of ethical challenges this raises for researchers and health professionals.

She says health professionals love to talk with her about the grey areas between fact and value.

“Every time I talk to a medical professional, I get, ‘Oh I’m so glad somebody’s looking at this!’ So I feel lucky to have the opportunity, as a philosopher, to step back and critically examine issues that may otherwise be taken for granted.”

Develop a questioning mind

The relationship between thinking, talking, and questioning is at the core of a philosopher’s work.

Conferences, colloquiums and casual discussions all keep the heart of our program beating, she says. Conversations allow students to test the logic of their arguments, the consistency of their positions across a variety of topics, and their ability to ask probing questions.

Dr. Borgerson draws on real-life cases to help students feel the gravity of the ethical dilemmas  faced by health-care professionals and to kick-start philosophical conversations.

“One of the first things you have to do is see a problem from a number of different perspectives. Part of what we are doing with a case study is forcing ourselves to take a different perspective.”

Problem solving in real time

As a volunteer for student interviews at Dal’s medical school, Dr. Borgerson sees how useful philosophy can be to aspiring health-care professionals. Many of the questions aimed at prospective medical students are either directly about ethics or require more general analytic skills.

“Doctors and nurses have to incorporate all of this information: The patient tells me this, the lab tells me this, the clinical research literature says this, and this is my gut feeling. How do all of these elements come together in a decision?”

“For quality health care, we need people who can think carefully and critically through every problem they face.”

Sound, systematic ways to think critically—that’s fundamental to a philosophy degree, according to Dr. Borgerson.