Bioethics Blogs

Did medicine save the life of ethics?

About thirty-five years ago, Stephen Toulmin wrote an article on the topic: How medicine saved the life of ethics. I think it is still worth reading.

Toulmin argued roughly as follows:

During the first six decades of the 1900s, ethics wasn’t feeling well at all. One might say that it suffered from moral aphasia: it couldn’t talk sensibly about real ethical problems.

While moral philosophers were preoccupied with formally specifying what distinguishes moral questions and judgements in general, without taking sides on specific ethical issues, ethics debaters outside of academic philosophy were trapped in the opposition between dogmatism and relativism.

Dogmatists referred respectfully to universal principles and authoritative religious systems, while relativists and subjectivists dismissed the absolute claims with reference to anthropological and psychological findings about differences in people’s attitudes.

In short, while philosophers analyzed what characterizes morality in general and left living ethical issues to their fate, dogmatists and relativists fought fruitlessly about whether these issues have absolute answers, based on universal principles, or if the answers are relative to cultural and individual factors.

In this near-death state, medicine came to the rescue. Medical practices gave rise to very definite ethical questions that insisted on answers and guidance. When philosophers in the 1960s began to pay attention to these issues, ethics was rescued from the life-threatening condition in which it found itself.

Toulmin suggests that medical ethics saved the life of ethics through four resuscitation efforts:

By focusing on situations, needs and interests, which are more objectively given than the attitudes, feelings and desires that anthropology and psychology were interested in.

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.