Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Humanist Bioethics - Is there such a thing?

I have been (and am) supportive of humanist endeavours pretty much since I decided for myself that atheism is the way to go. So, what about humanist bioethics? Well, it seems to me that any reason-based form of bioethical inquiry, ie one that is not based on religious magic wands of some kind or another actually qualifies as humanist bioethics. That means, of course, that humanist bioethics is more of an umbrella term covering all non-religious approaches to bioethics analysis. Some would argue that humanism is itself a form of speciesism, and that, in my view, is correct. So perhaps humanist bioethics needs a bit of fine tuning and reflection there. Humanist bioethics could be a(n) utilitarian, deontological, virtue ethical or any other secular ethical system of analysis. Indeed, it is perfectly possible for you to engage in humanist bioethics research and publishing, even if you are a committed Christian or Muslim, as long as your Christian convictions (ie the authority of the Bible) or your Islamic convictions (ie the authority of your Koran) don't muddy your critical analysis.

What does this mean for the bread-and-butter controversies in bioethics: Abortion? Euthanasia? Destructive embryonic stem cell research? Well, it's pretty clear from the above that certain types of arguments do not count: Reference to the infinite value of the human being based on claims about 'ensoulment' won't succeed as there ain't any empirical evidence that the human soul exists to begin with. Waving the Christian or Islamic magic wands (aka Bible or Koran) won't bring this soul into existence. Still, the important bit is perhaps, that humanist bioethics, so understood, leaves room for very significant disagreement on many subject matters that bioethicists are concerned about. However, humanist bioethics limits the types of arguments that can legitimately be deployed to those arguments that are not relying on higher God type entities and their authority.

Having attended and lectured during quite a few meetings of atheist and humanist groups, I have often encountered a clear misconception  of what humanist ethics or humanist bioethics could possibly be. All too often there was the assumption that humanist ethics or bioethics would somehow free us from the most reactionary provisions of Christian or Islamic ideologies while offering motherhood and apple pie type solutions to ethical conflict or controversy.  I suspect (!) that empirically that might well be true with regard to standard reactionary mainstream religions' provisions (prohibitions on homosexuality, voluntary euthanasia, etc). Peter Singer pointed out quite rightly in an early chapter of his book Practical Ethics that ethics does not give sexuality specific guidance. Sex as such does not give rise to special ethical issues. Ethics might admonish us not to hurt others while we engage in sexual intercourse, but the prohibition on harming others is not sex related, rather it is an ethical obligation not to harm others that also applies to sex. Secular approaches to ethics or bioethics would very likely free us from conservative religious infringements on personal freedom spaces. Humanists are more likely to ponder about the lives we live here and now as opposed to focusing on an afterlife that we don't think is awaiting us anyhow.

I am less sure about the motherhood and apple pie bits that I have frequently come across during the mentioned atheist meetings, eg human solidarity, tax the rich give to the poor, free tertiary education, public health care, sustainable development, *add any buzzword that engenders a warm feeling in you HERE*. I don't think anyone has as yet systematically investigated whether all varieties of humanist ethics or bioethics would necessarily lead us down that road. I sincerely doubt it.


  1. I recently had an email discussion with a Westminster Calvinist who asserted that I should abandon atheism/rationalism because it did not provide a good basis for deontology. It's true that it was much easier for me to determine the "right thing" to do when I was a Christian, and thought that there was a benevolent deity in charge who would sort everything out in the end. But I never accepted the horrible evil of the Calvinist God, and even my friendly liberal Christian deity crashed and burned when I realized that there was no afterlife to allow for the final righting of wrongs.

    That being said, for the most part I find humanist ethics to be pretty much indistinguishable from liberal Christian ethics - the United Church of Canada is pro-choice, supports voluntary euthanasia, celebrates gay marriage etc. The only difference would be that the UCC still thinks their ethics comes from God.

  2. Hi. Didn't John Rawls take a stab at justifying these "apple pie bits" with his notion of rational actors in the "orginal position"? Though not utilitarian, his synthesis certainly isn't religous either.

  3. Once humanist ethics is distinguished clearly (assuming this is possible) from religious tradition, the next challenge is to distinguish it from nihilism. Why, from a rational point of view, should we care about much of anything? Why should we care about actions producing the best consequences for the greatest number, or our own survival as a species? Or human virtues? Or deontological principles? Aren't all these 'apple pie bits' of alternative flavors, with no ultimate rational justification either?


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