April 14, 2024

‘The bioethics revolution is over’

Has the discipline become too boring?

In the 1960s and 70s bioethics was “revolutionary”, bringing a new perspective to medical issues. However, as more and more experts put the field under their microscopes, it has been “normalised” – so says Baruch Brody, a leading American bioethicist.

According to a blog post by Craig Klugman at bioethics.net, Brody relied upon Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of scientific revolutions.

Revolutionary science is what happens when an accumulation of data and observations shows that the world does not work as theory predicts … But once a new theory is proposed and accepted, the work of science moves to normal science where the theory is further proven, refined and its implications and applications are explored.

This, says Brody, is what has happened to bioethics. The revolutionary moment came when:

Bioethics moved philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the clinic; it connected humanities scholars with government panels and the media; and it shifted the focus from doctors paternalistically making decisions to patient autonomy. Bioethics revolutionized the way that patients interacted with the health care system and providers (in fact, they became providers), how we handle human subjects research, with how moral issues in health care settings are dealt.

But nowadays, bioethics is in danger of becoming boring. “Even the work in bioethics is not earth-shattering. Year after year at the ASBH meetings I hear colleagues say, ‘There’s nothing new here,’” says Klugman. In fact, this question was raised as long ago as 1999 by Al Jonsen, one of the pioneers of the discipline, in an article headlined, “Why has bioethics become so boring?”

Klugman concludes by asking what a revolution in contemporary bioethics would look like: “A new theory? New territory? New media outlets? Or the end of bioethics?”

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