Bioethics Blogs

What Is Philosophical Ethics Doing?

In my last blog I asked the question, “What is ethics doing?” where I contrasted the armchair, academic ethics that I knew as a graduate student with the clinical ethics cases in which I am now involved in clinical ethics consultations. I alluded to the famous paper by Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009), “How medicine saved the life of ethics” by providing ethics with many practical value laden problems to address. The very process of becoming involved with applied ethics and ethical problems of practicing physicians in the healthcare system was itself as, or perhaps more, transformational for ethics than it was for medicine. Even though medicine needed a serious study of its value-laden issues, which has evolved into bioethics and clinical ethics, the very activity of doing applied ethics has evolved into a better defined field of inquiry with a clearer purpose. But what about the armchair, academic pursuits of philosophical ethics of old? Is there anything left for it to do? This is the question I will attempt to answer in this blog.

Perhaps the most complete model of an ethical framework was Aristotle’s (384-382 BC) Nichomachean Ethics, which fully articulated a coherent, normative philosophical moral system. The good life for humans according to Aristotle was grounded in the rational, teleological structure of the universe. All individual things in nature contained an inherent rational function that defined their nature as individual things, including human beings. For a thing to fulfills its function or rational nature it was a mark of excellence and in a real sense made it more like God or the first or prime mover, which was the highest form of pure, rational activity.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.