Bioethics Blogs

Global bioethics: each culture its own “ethnobioethics”?

With globalization bioethics is spread over the world. The process isn’t without friction, since bioethics is associated with Western philosophy. Is that thinking applicable to other cultures? Parts of the world where bioethics is spread may also have a colonial history, such as Africa. Should they now once again come under Western influence?

In an article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Sirkku K. Hellsten discusses the role of philosophy in global bioethics. She uses the example of Africa, where discussions about a unique African philosophy have been intense. But she also quotes Henry Odera Oruka, wondering why so much time is spent discussing what distinguishes African philosophy, when so little time is devoted to actually practicing it.

To investigate the role of philosophy in global bioethics, Hellsten distinguishes (inspired by Odera Oruka) four forms of philosophy. I reproduce two of them here:

  1. Ethnophilosophy: Here it is assumed that different cultures often have incommensurable conceptions and worldviews. Bioethical key concepts – personhood, rationality, autonomy, consent, human nature, human well-being – have as many interpretations as there are cultures. The aim seems to be to develop these interpretations of Western ethical concepts and principles, to develop culture specific “ethnobioethics.”
  2. Professional philosophy: Professional philosophers, says Hellsten, are academically trained in critical, impartial, logical argument. (She distinguishes professional philosophy from the ideological tendencies of Peter Singer and John Harris). Although professional philosophers are influenced by their culture, they can recognize these biases and subject them to self-critical examination. Professional philosophy is self-correcting.

Hellsten points out that ethnophilosophical thinking, in its quest to carve out culture specific “ethnophilosophies,” on the contrary tends to make sweeping generalizations about cultural views, creating false oppositions.

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.