As a general rule, bioethical debates deal with the questions raised by scientific-technical breakthroughs in the field of research and biomedical practice. The swiftness with which these advances take place calls into question whether moral philosophy —and in particular theological ethics— can provide answers to the new questions raised, or whether it should capitulate to strategic ethics.
In the last few months, the Journal of Medical Ethics has reignited the debate about the place of religion in medical ethics. Nigel Biggar, Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford University , has criticised the moral ambiguity of secular ethics, which often obliges us “to settle for a somewhat messy compromise” . Biggar denies that religious logic is irrational, and admonishes intellectuals to overcome their “scientistic” prejudices and recognise that moral theology is a repository of genuinely convincing and illuminating principles. Biggar’s theory is contested by Kevin Smith, professor at Abertay University in Dundee ; Brian Earp, researcher at Oxford University ; and Xavier Symons of Sydney Catholic University .
Smith’s criticism of Biggar’s arguments centres on the following: firstly, the principles of theological ethics are not universal, since they appeal to divine authority instead of rational discourse; furthermore, they were formulated when the possibilities of contemporary technology for detecting prenatal disease early on, creating and maintaining embryonic life outside the maternal womb, or eliminating intrauterine life using techniques that are safe for the pregnant woman were still unknown. Only “secular” ethics, he adds, guarantee discussion based on ethical principles open to rational analysis. He concludes that only utilitarianism has the potential to attract a universal consensus, because happiness and suffering are, respectively, highly valued and deprecated by all agents who participate in the debate.
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.