December 2, 2022

Does bioethics have a future?

Despite pugnacious assertions of right and wrong, permissible and impermissible, the future of bioethics (and perhaps bioethicists, as well) is often clouded by self-doubt. Few have expressed this better than the editor of the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy, bioethicist H. Tristam Engelhardt Jr, of Rice University in Texas. In a brilliant overview of the state of his discipline, he concludes that there are no definitive answers.

Despite pugnacious assertions of right and wrong,
permissible and impermissible, the future of bioethics (and perhaps
bioethicists, as well) is often clouded by self-doubt. Few have expressed this better
than the editor of the Journal of Medicine
& Philosophy
, bioethicist H. Tristam Engelhardt Jr, of Rice University
in Texas. In a brilliant overview of the state of his discipline, he concludes that
there are no definitive answers.

“In the face of the
moral pluralism that results from the death of God and the abandonment of a God’s
eye perspective in secular philosophy, bioethics … [is] essentially incapable of
giving answers to substantive moral questions, such as concerning the permissibility
of abortion, human embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, etc.”

Engelhardt is a post-modern sceptic who thinks
that competing views of bioethics can never convince by rational argument. Even
autonomy and equality, the crown jewels of contemporary discourse, he says, “cannot
be shown by social rational argument to be the morality that all should embrace”.

Many of the best-known bioethicists use moral
pluralism as a way of dissolving traditional moral taboos. But Engelhardt points
out that if “ we do not share common moral and metaphysical premises or rules of
evidence”, then “despite often passionate claims to the contrary, secular bioethics
cannot provide uncontroversial, content-full, moral guidance”.

So, given the “irresolvable plurality of bioethics”,
does bioethics have a role to play? Yes, says Engelhardt, but modest ones like clarifying
decision-making and risk management, mediating disputes and giving legal advice.
In other words, serving as non-morally-normative facilitators on bioethics committees.
Oh well, it still puts bread on the table. Practitioners of phrenology lost their
jobs forever. ~ Journal of Medicine
& Philosophy, June

Michael Cook
bioethics
future of bioethics