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Abe Schwab

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Abe Schwab

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The Philosophy of Decision Making

How do we know what we know? How can we prove what we know and what we don’t? If we don’t know what we know, how can we possibly make the “right” decision in any given situation?

Associate Professor of Philosophy Abe Schwab wrestles with this philosophical conundrum on a daily basis. 

I’m looking at how people know what they know and what justifies them claiming to know what they know and how that then matches up with the decisions that they make.
— Abe Schwab

The Dilemma Unfolds

Schwab’s primary area of research focuses on the intersection of epistemology—that is, the philosophical theory of knowledge itself—and its application to medical ethics in real-world situations.

His inquiries help inform the decisions made by medical professionals in clinical environments that can seriously affect doctors and healthcare providers, as well as patients and their families.

Professor Schwab's research has been highly published and publicized.

Professor Schwab's research has been highly published and publicized.

I’m curious how decisions go wrong in medicine, both for the physician and for the patient, and even the policy maker.
— Abe Schwab

By better understanding how our own perceptions of knowledge influence (and potentially limit) our decision-making capabilities, Schwab’s research could provide opportunities for better risk assessment and informed judgment when it matters most.

The Ethics of Research

In addition to his research into the very concept of knowledge itself, Schwab also works with research ethics, asking, “What does it mean to do research in the right kind of way?”

With this research into the nature of research, Schwab hopes to better understand how one does research while respecting the patient or subject while still arriving at robust conclusions that can guide better future medical practices.

Professor Schwab opens up a classroom lecture to discussion with his students.

Professor Schwab opens up a classroom lecture to discussion with his students.

A Catch-22

In particular, Schwab is interested in the idea of conflicts of interest, especially those that appear unavoidable for one reason or another. He explains that—particularly in fields like healthcare—professionals will sometimes arrive at a conundrum where the “right” answer is not obvious.

Given the complexity of the field, it may not be practical—or even possible—to avoid these conflicts of interest entirely.

So now we have these unavoidable conflicts of interests … How should we handle those?
— Abe Schwab

Schwab has written extensively on this very subject, and while a definitive answer remains elusive, his thought-provoking research has thrown the door wide open for discussion and debate among philosophers, researchers, and healthcare providers.

Inviting Students to the Discussion

During his classes, Schwab often takes a seat to invite and encourage an open environment for intellectual debate. And while his students sometimes struggle with the difficult, provocative questions he poses—categorizing them as “unanswerable”—Schwab is quick to point out that the conclusion isn’t always the point.

The key difference is that I’m asking you unanswerable questions, but you assumed you knew the answer. Right?
— Abe Schwab

Schwab insists that the whole point of his ethics classes is to encourage his students to think critically about what they’ve always assumed. He presses his students to be good thinkers, to sort through information and recognize what’s important while discarding what is not.

In every situation, Schwab says, he wants his students to think about the decisions they make, and the how those decisions come with a question of ethics.


Program Snapshot: Department of Philosophy

Follow your curiosity. The Department of Philosophy offers courses in ethics and religious studies, in addition to both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions to deepen your understanding of the human experience. We graduate thinkers, lawyers, scientists, and more. Our program includes philosophy, ethics, and religious studies. Learn more.