4 Aug, 09 | by Iain Brassington
Dan Sulmasy has a piece on Bioethics Forum at the moment in which he considers the next 40 years of bioethics. It’s a curious piece, making six main claims or predictions about the future, to which I’ll return in a minute: but before that, I think it’s worth looking at his scene-setting:
I suggest that bioethics has evolved through three phases: a religious phase in the 1950s and ’60s, a philosophical phase in the ’70s and ’80s, and a political-empirical phase from the ’90s to the present. Much as been written and said about the first two phases, but little about more recent history.
By the late 1980s, just as I was starting serious study in the field, philosophical bioethics had created a standard canon and had begun to rest on its achievements. Physicians, who found the language of philosophers alien but had been taking courses in bioethics, began re-engaging the field (or, in some cases, reclaiming it as their own).
The general public, policymakers, and many of the new young students entering the field of bioethics by this time also began to complain that philosophy did not supply enough concrete answers to their pressing questions. They wanted solutions to social policy problems such as the distribution of health care resources, cost-containment, and physician-assisted suicide.
I’m interested to know whether this natural history of bioethics is accurate. On the face of it, I’m not sure. It – perhaps – describes the genesis of bioethics in the US, but I’m not sure that the subject has followed the same route in Europe, where there simply has not been a religious or political phase. Bioethics has grown out of a renewed interest in applied ethics, which has grown out of good, old-fashioned, seminar-room ethics. To the extent that claims are made about what should be done, and what the law should say, bioethics is “political” – but it isn’t political in the strong sense that I think Sulmasy uses the term; it isn’t about activism on behalf of this or that group (and it shouldn’t be, either). And I’ve already articulated my suspicions of the supposed “empirical turn” in the subject; empirical studies may feed ethical debate, but they oughtn’t to be treated as a substitute.
But back to the six points, which I’ve edited down here.