February 26, 2024

Do amazement, wonder, and awe have a place in bioethics?

An Australian bioethicist says Yes

If it were to be written The Varieties of Bioethical Experience would be a book as big as a telephone directory. There is Islamic bioethics, feminist bioethics, utilitarian bioethics, indigenous bioethics, principalist bioethics, Catholic bioethics, Marxist bioethics, conservative bioethics, black bioethics, progressive bioethics, queer bioethics, and so on and on.

Writing in the journal Ethics & Behavior, Australian bioethicist Margaret Somerville has outlined another variety – the bioethics of wonder. The article is a personal reflection on her 40 years in bioethics and medical law in Canada and Australia which distils the main themes of her research. She writes:

The main new proposition that I derive from this very broad overview, which will need much further in-depth research, is that experiences of “amazement, wonder, and awe”, combined with healthy scepticism, that is, without cynicism or nihilism, can lead to deep gratitude and hope, which, in turn can lead to a stronger commitment to act ethically. I call this proposal “The Wonder Equation”.

Much of her writing has been concerned with deeply controversial issues like euthanasia, abortion, reproductive technologies and same-sex marriage, in which she has defended positions which are often labelled “conservative”.

However, Somerville contends that they are not conservative in the sense of protecting superannuated and superfluous moral positions, but rather of incorporating “the learning and wisdom we have accrued as communities and societies throughout millennia and that each of us has accrued as individuals as we live our lives.”

As a first step toward that goal, I propose that in relation to formulating our values, we should be open to experiencing “amazement, wonder and awe” in as many situations and as often as possible. By way of example, “if we perceive a foetus as a unique new human being and regard it, and subsequently the newborn child, with “amazement, wonder and awe”, we are likely to see it as involving a mystery that we must respect, which will usually exclude abortion and certainly excludes infanticide.”

Is she on to something? Aristotle famously declared that “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize.” Should we add “and do bioethics”?

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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