Questions to which the Answer is Yes

Over at Practical Ethics, Charles Camosy asks a question: Can bioethics be done without theology?

Yep.  It can.

Well, that was quick and simple.

But – oh, all right: I probably ought to say a bit more.  Now, Camosy’s post is quite long, and that means that if I want to scrutinise it in any detail, I’d have to generate something at least as long.  I’m not sure if I – or any reader – has the patience for that, so what follows is probably not going to be without the odd gap.  All the same, this post has turned out to be something of a monster in its own right – so it might be worth going to make a cup of tea first if you intend to read it.

The tl;dr version is that I think that Camosy’s argument is fallacious in several places.  And though I’m arguing from a position of godlessness, I think that the problems ought to be apparent to those who do have faith as well.  With that caveat issued, here we go…

Camosy’s opening gambit is that “theological bioethics is in trouble”.  Part of the explanation of the trouble, he claims, is that the nature of ethics in Universities – I take him to mean theology departments here – is changing, and for a couple of reasons.  The first is that

as theology continues to morph into religious studies in many university departments, “social ethics” now swallows everything in its path—with almost all questions of ethics becoming questions exclusively about history, sociology and/or economics.

The second is that theological ethicists themselves – by which he seems to mean Catholic ethicists – are reluctant to write about certain issues such as abortion for fear of the response either from the Church itself if they go one way, or their non-Catholic colleagues if they go the other.  (I think it’s reasonable to infer Catholicism here: I can’t really see Quakers being all that fussed one way or the other.)  Already, though, I think that Camosy is in trouble.  It might be that theology departments are looking more to the social aspects of religion – I don’t know – but it doesn’t follow from that that “almost all questions of ethics are becoming questions exclusively about history, sociology and/ or economics”.  It doesn’t follow, and they aren’t.  As for theological ethicists… well, again, he probably knows better than I.  Why that is, and whether it matters, is a different story.  It could just be that even theology departments are full of non-believers nowadays.

But, he continues,

there is another reason that theological bioethics is in trouble. Today’s centers of power in academic and clinical bioethics (at least in the developed West) generally don’t take theology seriously.  I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and was dismayed – though, I must say, not surprised – to see that a grand total of zero papers had an explicitly theological argument.  Those of us who do theological bioethics know that, in order to get a paper accepted by today’s ASBH, one is forced to hide or translate one’s theological commitments.  The reason I was able to present this year was because I was invited by the Christian theology interest group – the one place at ASBH (during the evening, apart from the formal sessions) where theologians can actually present and discuss theology.

Do we have to accept the conclusion?  Well, it might be that people have to hide their commitments; but there’re other explanations, too.  One is that people simply don’t submit theological papers to that kind of conference.  (This might be because they think they’ll be rejected out of hand; but it might be because they just go elsewhere.)  Another is that the explicitly theological ones don’t get accepted for sound academic reasons.  I’ve no evidence for this hunch, but I do wonder whether that might be the case at least sometimes.  And partly this is because it might not be clear what theological bioethics is to begin with.

I admit that, really, I don’t know what it is.  I’ve spoken to a number of self-described theological bioethicists in the past about what makes their discipline different from bioethics in any other sense; and I have to admit that I’ve never got a particularly satisfactory answer.  The obvious answer is that it involves a concern with the divine – but that’s vulnerable to the response that it’s simply bioethics plus ghosts, and that good theological bioethics would avoid metaphysical extravagance – which’d reduce it to common-or-garden bioethics.  On that basis, the question to ask would be not “Can we do bioethics without theology” so much as “Why should bioethics involve theology at all”?  And it might mean that explicitly theological papers are just to metaphysically extravagant.  In turn, that might explain why they don’t get accepted at conferences.

Maybe there’s another answer – a less obvious one – that I’ve missed, and that doesn’t reduce to the sociology of religion and theological bioethics that Camosy thinks has swamped the subject.  Maybe someone could enlighten me. (Later on in the post, he talks about “metaphysical questions of ultimate concern” – but I don’t know what that means, let alone how someone is supposed to address them.  It seems perilously close to the “What’s the meaning of life?” nonsense that the public seems to think philosophers actually care about.)

It’s worth noting, too, that there were explicitly religiously-informed papers at this year’s IAB.  Some were about religion in the abstract sense; others were about particular religions.  Whether or not they were any good is a different matter; but they were there.  So he might simply not have been looking in the right places.

Camosy himself is unclear about what he means by “theological bioethics”.  He complains that

bioethics articles with theological arguments don’t appear to be read by those who hold power in the field.  Journals like Christian Bioethics and National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly don’t even make the top 20

and acknowledges a tweet by Udo to the effect that maybe this is because the quality is simply low.  It might be – that speaks to my concern above that thological bioethics is bioethics plus ghosts, which amounts to inferior bioethics.  But the thing that really catches my eye is that Camosy’s exemplar theological bioethics journals are Christian.  Indeed, throughout is post, the theological and the Christian are almost interchangeable.  And that might well matter, because it suggests that theological bioethics involves not just talking about the divine in some broad sense, but on a particular religious doctrine.

Camosy’s response to this is to claim that non-theological bioethics discussions have “gained a reputation among many serious ethicists for being unacceptably thin”.  Well, that’s as may be – but it he doesn’t specify who these ethicists are, or what his standard for seriousness is, or why they think the discussions are thin, or whether there’re other serious ethicists who’d deny this.  Most importantly, though, it doesn’t tell us that theology is a thickener, let alone the best thickener.  And pointing out that many of the people who got (American) bioethics going were theologians doesn’t tell us anything about how it should be done now, any more than pointing out that many of the people who got modern science going were alchemists means that bench scientists should emulate Paracelsus.  So even if it’s true that theologians invented bioethics, it doesn’t mean that their “current marginalisation” is problematic.  If, indeed, they’re marginalised at all.  I’ll come back to that.

Before getting that far, I think it’s worth looking at the claim that

as far as today’s academic and clinical disciplines are concerned, bioethics simply is secular.  There is no more a need to make a case for secular bioethics than there is a need to make a case for secular engineering.

His tone seems to be slightly sardonic here, but I think that he’s bang on the money.  What’s important here is that Camosy does seem – again – to conflate the theological with the religious or the sectarian.  On this understanding, one can be religiously-orientated, or one can be worldly; but not both, and not both together.  But, really, that’s not what secularism is about.  Secularism does not promote godlessness.

It just doesn’t.

Secularism doesn’t really promote anything.  It says simply that the State isn’t going to impose any particular doctrine; and this isn’t based in dogma, so much as in a recognition of fallibility that breeds a kind of modesty.  Absent State endorsement, all ideas are up for grabs, but anyone can make any case.  That’s precisely why there’s no need to make a case for secular bioethics – or at least, not aside from making a case for good bioethics.  If you’ve got an argument, then you can make it.  If it’s a decent argument, it’ll find an audience.  Granted, it might have to get through peer-review, and peer-review isn’t perfect; but, all the same, papers shouldn’t be rejected simply because they’re theologically-derived.  And if they are, that’s not a problem with secularism; it’s a problem about peer-reviewers not doing secularism properly themselves.  Of course, echoing Udo’s point, it might turn out that theologically-derived papers simply aren’t very good, and should be rejected for that reason; but there’s plenty of non-theological papers that should be rejected for being not very good as well.

There’s also something rather tendentious about the claim that explicitly religious contributors are excluded, and that this is a form of bigotry, which Camosy makes towards the end of his post.  There’s a lot of people working within bioethics broadly conceived (which I take to mean primarily philosophy, but also law, anthropology, sociology and so on) who do have strong religious commitments, but who don’t bring them explicitly to the table.  One thing we might ask, then, is whether they’ve been cowed.  They might have been, but I doubt it; at least a couple of the people I have in mind have huge reputations internationally – the chance that they would have felt there’s anything they can’t say is small.  Rather, I suspect that they treat their faith as a private matter, which does not, and has no reason to, impinge on their scholarly output.  (That is to say: they’re secular.  Secular believers.)

Given this, it’s interesting – and possibly important – to note in passing that Christian Bioethics itself trumps the fact that it is “guided by the usual secular scholarly standards”.

But, still: what about the explicitly religious?

Here’s Camosy’s claim:

Post-MacIntyre, we know that there is no view from nowhere, and that everyone addressing foundational questions in ethics does so from the perspective of a normative tradition constituted by first principles for which they do not have arguments. Such first principles simply grab or claim the thinker by faith, intuition, or some other authority. This is true whether one is a utilitarian, a feminist, or a Roman Catholic.

If those who wield power within the circles of academic and clinical bioethics took this insight seriously, they would not only recognize that excluding explicitly-religious thinkers is a kind of bigotry (there is no defensible reason for, say, concluding that utilitarians and feminists are “in” but Roman Catholics are “out”), but they would welcome theologians as marshalling a discourse hyper-focused on precisely the questions of ultimate concern with which bioethics must re-engage.

I dealt with the “questions of ultimate concern” earlier; I’m more concerned here with the other bit.  I’ll also allow that noone argues from nowhere.  All the same, I don’t think that that means we should abandon the idea that we simply have to take our starting positions on faith.  Presumably, a committed utilitarian thinks that it ought to be possible to persuade others that her theoretical commitment is in some sense correct, rather than a bare description of how her brain happens to work.  Someone’s being a feminist isn’t simply a matter of being a member of a club; it’s more that he takes certain claims about the sexes to be true, and certain other ones to be false, within the context of a more-or-less coherent umbrella.  Not all utilitarians, and not all feminists, will agree about everything; what matters is a commitment to the kinds of things that arguments ought to do.

Now, for my money, Catholicism (or any other religious tradition) has more work to do on this front.  Partly, this has to do with the fact that it involves commitment to particular substantive beliefs, more than methodology.  It’s hard to see that a person could claim to be Catholic while rejecting certain core substantive claims.  So there’s a difference there.  Second, as Camosy admits at the start of his post, Catholic bioethicists may be pressured to toe the line on certain substantive issues; I don’t think that that’d ever be true of feminism or utilitarianism, or even Kantianism – again, this is because they’re to do with methodology.  Finally – and this follows from that point – it’s not clear that there is a Catholic (or Protestant, or Muslim, or Hindu) methodology anyway; or, at least, if there is, it’s reliant on accepting, rather than arriving at, a dogma.  This is important: even if there were a distinctively religious method, to convince someone to adopt it would presuppose their acceptance of some very big claims about the nature of the world.  It’s possible that utilitarians presuppose some background claims, too – but they don’t seem to me to be anything like as big, or – frankly – as dubious.

The point is this: it’s not at all a given that there is either deliberate exclusion or bigotry.  Certainly, no secular journal has a “No Theology” platform. But “explicitly religious” papers do run the risk of being reducible to proselytisation, and therefore not meeting the standards of good academic work – they might not even make it into Christian Bioethics on that basis! – or being so niche that few people would be interested except those already disposed to accept the conclusions, or being – again – the kind of sociological paper that Camosy thinks has taken all the vim from out of the subject.

(Working the other way, I can’t help wondering how many non-explicitly-religious papers get published in religiously-orientated journals.  “Ah, but that’s not what they’re for” won’t do here, because it opens the way to saying exactly the same about non-religious journals not publishing explicitly religious pieces.)

A couple of final points: when Camosy suggests that

[t]heologians, without being forced to translate their views into the language and methodology of a different normative tradition, ought to take their rightful (and historical) place as full and equal players in academic and clinical bioethics

it’s not clear what he means by “rightful”.  If the historical claim is true – I’m not convinced of it, myself: not this side of the Atlantic, anyway – that won’t feed into rightfulness.  What else could do the trick, though?  The normal standard is that arguments should be metaphysically parsimonious and persuasive.  To refuse to accept the methodology of every other subject from philosophy to structural engineering doesn’t look to me like equal playing – it looks like special pleading.  And if you want to set up a journal or conference that does make that kind of special provision… well, fine.  But don’t moan when those who don’t share the same presuppositions ignore it.

Finally: back to the question that Camosy set himself – that of whether bioethics can be done without theology.  Of course it can be.  Not only can it be done, but it is done without theology, and it’s done without theology even by those who do happen to have religious commitments.  And I’d go further: it’s all the better for it.




Told you this was a monster.  I hope your tea was nice.