Bioethics Blogs

“Humanists,” Academic Philosophers, Critical Distance, and Clinical Ethicists


The October 2016 Annual Meeting of the American
Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) announced its theme for the
Washington, D.C., convocation several months ago: “After over half a century of
work, and as ASBH celebrates its coming-of-age, we have chosen to focus on
‘critical distance’ and our ‘insider-outsider’ status at our 18th annual meeting.”
Some may be relatively unfamiliar with these notions of “critical distance” and
“insider-outsider” status.


            In
the early 1970s, when medical center and medical school thought leaders began
hiring “humanists” to teach, round with teams, and attend morning reports and
noon conferences, it was unclear what – if any – specific outcomes might
result. However, the center executives and deans wanted to try something to
help inject human values and humanistic thought into the educational process to
offset the very strong influences of advancing technologies, specialization,
and materialism, and to assure the outraged public in the face of recently
revealed research scandals.


            These pioneer
“humanists” were theologians, religious studies scholars, and philosophers. In
just a few years, the philosophers were predominating in this growing field of applied
ethics educators and scholars. In explaining this transition, Art Caplan wrote:
“It proved very difficult to do bioethics in public in anything approximating a
religious voice. … [I]t quickly became clear that to command the attention of
scientists and physicians, as well as policy-makers, a more secular voice was
required. Philosophy, emerging out of decades of mainly futile wrangling about
meta-ethical issues, was more than happy to oblige … .”
Caplan AL. The birth and
evolution of bioethics.

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.