Bioethics Blogs

(Non) Free Will and Bioethics

May 01, 2017

by Bodnár János Kristóf, MA and PhD (Philosophy), Clarkson University MS (expected 2017, Research Ethics)

(Non)Free Will and Bioethics

Philosophers, religious thinkers, and laymen alike have pondered on the notion of ‘the freedom of the will’ for thousands of years. Over time, the concept underwent various transfigurations – through debates over the source, the function, the purpose, or the extent of it.  Nevertheless, in the so-called Western ethical tradition it seems to have a more or less unequivocal meaning: conscious adult individuals without particular mental illnesses are free in choosing their moral norms and actions. Consequently, they are responsible for those norms and actions as well. Humans meeting these criteria are commonly referred to as autonomous (literally: self-governing or self-determining)subjects.

In Immanuel Kant’s understanding of such autonomous agents, the freedom of the will is postulated. Less technically phrased, this freedom is taken ‘for granted’ as an unquestioned foundation and point of departure in ethics. This serves as a necessary condition of what Kant calls the ‘Kingdom of the Ends’ where humans can practice this freedom of theirs.

Our current liberal and democratic societies, formed in the eras of Modernity and Enlightenment, also grounded their most fundamental values – their ‘identity’ – on this notion, and incarnated this rather abstract ideal into tangible legal means: rights, constitutions, laws, and policies.

From the perspective of medicine and medical ethics, this turn is reflected in the fact that the principle of respect for the autonomous decision of the patient has become a (if not: the) cardinal value and practical concern in modern 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.