February 29, 2024

Does bioethics exist?

Maybe not, says American bioethicist

Every doctor knows
patients who are so disenchanted with the remedies of modern Western
medicine that they dabble in an ever-growing range of alternatives:
aromatherapy, naturopathy, Chinese herbal medicine, Reiki therapy, iridology,
Ayurveda, yoga, homeopathy and on and on. According to a blistering
article in the latest Journal of Medical Ethics, the situation
in bioethics is not much different.

, of the University of Minnesota, argues that bioethics has
become so diverse that it may have ceased to exist as a serious
intellectual discipline. “
If bioethics is capacious enough
to include libertarians, communitarians, deontologists, neo-Kantians,
utilitarians, neo-Aristotelians, virtue theorists, feminists,
Rawslians, Habermasians, narrative theorists, interpretivists,
principlists, casuists, civic republicans, liberal egalitarians and
religious ethicists of every persuasion, does bioethics exist as
something other than a loosely connected assemblage of conflicts over
norms, principles, practices and policies?

Over the last 40
years bioethics has swollen into an industry, with centres in
hospitals, universities and government departments. Consultant
bioethicists make a living out of giving advice to companies.
However, Turner writes, “Although an increasing number of
individuals make their living as bioethicists, there is no
recognizable, widely shared, common moral philosophy that
bioethicists draw upon to resolve moral disputes.”

The movement called
“principalism” distilled the essential features of bioethics into
four priniciples of justice, beneficence, non-malificence and
autonomy. These “offered the hope of a common, ‘nonpartisan’,
secular, philosophical language for addressing ethical issues in
medicine, health care and biotechnology.” But that dream has been
dashed by the proliferation of incompatible approaches.

He concludes —
somewhat ominously — that ”Practitioners of intellectual
disciplines, professions and occupations need to be able to respond
to questions about their claims to authority, credibility and
legitimacy. If bioethicists cannot provide thoughtful, persuasive
responses to such questions, they might find that the expansionist
phase of bioethics is replaced by an era of retrenchment and
decline.” ~ Journal
of Medical Ethics, December


Michael Cook
future of bioethics