February 25, 2024

What’s so philosophical about bioethics?

A leading bioethics journal has taken philosophical bioethics by the horns — and published a collection of essays.

The latest edition of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics contains a stimulating series of articles on the nature and usefulness (or lack thereof) of philosophical bioethics.

The special section is the work of Nordic bioethicists Tuija Takala and Matti Häyry, who recently collected a series of essays representing different perspectives on the role of philosophy in bioethical enquiry. Takala and Häyry also offer their own opinions.

According to Hayry, genuinely philosophical work in bioethics eventually comes down to unearthing and exposing the assumptions and presuppositions that underlie our ideas and assertions about moral, social, and political realities.

“The soundness of arguments for and against real-life views and judgments depends on the correctness of their underlying theories… It is my conviction that [philosophers] can expose the presuppositions of these views and present them for all to see, in the hope that people can then make informed choices among alternative solutions.”

In the responses to the question “wither philosophical bioethics?”, contributors offer diverse perspectives, ranging from feminist and post-modern to pragmatic and egalitarian. In his “Toward a Postmodern Bioethics,” David Gibson discusses the importance of scepticism toward meta-narratives in theoretical bioethics:

“In seeking to question and disrupt accepted approaches and theories in healthcare, a postmodern approach attempts to acknowledge the limitations that healthcare practices impose on practitioners, while calling on theorists to take responsibility for their contributions.”

In “The Evolving Idea of Social Responsibility in Bioethics: A Welcome Trend”, Johanna Ahola-Launonen examines the extent to which individuals can be held answerable when it comes to the link between their choices and their health problems. She argues that we have an ethical imperative to discuss and address social factors that lead to poor health “There is an abundance of empirical evidence to support the significance of social determinants. Family wealth, social status, networks, and cultural knowledge of societal processes mold a child’s personality and her future prospects…”. One task of philosophical bioethics is to correct erroneous attributions of responsibility.

Taken as a whole, this Cambridge Quarterly series of essays provides a good overview of different perspectives in philosophical bioethics. It’s an informative summary of the status quaestionis.  

Cambridge quarterly of healthcare ethics discusses philosophical bioethics
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
applied ethics
philosophical bioethics
public health
public policy