Bioethics Blogs

The Importance of History for Bioethics: It is What it Was

by Barry Shuster, Bioethics Program Alum (2013)

At a holiday social gathering last year, I sat with a former colleague, a physician, who inquired about my progress in bioethics. While he finds bioethics interesting and occasionally useful, he broached the familiar refrain: “It’s all relative”.

“We say this is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ based on someone’s philosophy,” he said. “But there are always other perspectives. The Nazis thought what they were doing was ethical.”

My friend paused to take bite of his sandwich, and looked across the table, waiting for a response. I’m Jewish, so the comment was particularly provocative. If I’ve learned anything from being a lawyer and parenting teenagers, however, it is how not to flinch when provoked. I encouraged him to continue.

“The problem with bioethics is there are no clear standards,” he said. “There is no bar exam for bioethics. Ultimately, doesn’t the ‘who’s right or wrong’ question really get down to who won?

He raised an important question that challenges the validity of bioethics as a discipline, let alone a profession. That is, who is to say whose approach and philosophies are more valid?

I believe most reasonable people appreciate that bioethics – like the humanities, philosophy, and even social sciences – is not physics, whose theories can be explained with mathematical precision and repeated in a controlled setting. Yet bioethics aspires to provide firm moral guidance on matters of life and death.

When I try to explain medical ethics and its moral foundations, I follow the approach of Dr. Robert Baker, Director Emeritus of the Bioethics Program, and trace its historical roots from the Hippocratic tradition.

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.