Bioethics Blogs

The Philosophical Failing of Bioethics?

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

I begin this blog post with a long quote from Julian Savulescu’s article, “Bioethics: Why Philosophy is Essential for Progress,” just published in Journal of Medical Ethics:

“I left a promising career in medicine to do bioethics because I had done philosophy in 1982 and attended Peter Singer’s lectures in practical ethics. The field was new and exciting and there were original proposals and arguments. Singer, Glover, Lockwood, Parfit and others were breaking new ground, giving new analyses and arguments. Now medical ethics is more like a religion, with positions based on faith not argument, and imperiously imposed in a simple-minded way, often by committees or groups of people with no training in ethics, or even an understanding of the nature of ethics.

What medical ethics needs is more and better philosophy— and a return to the adventurousness and originality of its pioneering days. There have been successes—euthanasia and better treatment of animals to mention just two. But the field has in many ways dried up or become dominated by moralists bent on protecting privacy and confidentiality at great cost and ‘getting consent’, and in other ways ‘protecting basic human rights and dignity’. Medical ethics isn’t sufficiently philosophical, and when it is philosophical, it’s the bad arguments or a narrow range of arguments that often seem to make a difference. And there is the attempted scientification of ethics in empirical ethics, a kind of sociological ethics, surveying people’s opinions and practice. But this can never directly lead to answering the question: what should we do?

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.