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.


Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Journal of medical ethics courts controversy


Good bioethics will invariably challenge boundaries. As my friend and colleague Julian Savulescu, Editor of the Journal of medical ethics has found out to his chagrin, publishing controversial ethical analyses will lead to very serious personal abuse.[1] His journal published on-line early a paper the authors of which take a stance on infanticide that is not terribly new or original in bioethics, as Savulescu rightly notes. The authors apply these arguments to maternal and family interests. Of course, an argument on infanticide, particularly one that does not reject infanticide out of hand, will likely upset some or even most readers. The same is true, to a smaller extent, for other issues. Bioethics runs occasionally invited guest editorials. A few issues back we published a guest editorial with a plea to ‘queer bioethics’.[2] Conservative commentators had a field day on the internet with what was arguably a tame editorial suggesting we should take into consideration patients belonging to sexual minority groups. As we have discovered in academic analyses of former US President Bush’s bioethics chief’s indefensible claim that if we find something repugnant it’s probably morally wrong, feelings of disgust and even horror are bad indicators of the moral soundness or otherwise of normative views, behaviors etc. Otherwise interracial marriages would likely have never come about, given how disgusted people were about this possibility just a few decades ago.

Good bioethical analyses will continue to challenge and test boundaries we take for granted. In that context it is legitimate to publish papers discussing infanticide as much as it is legitimate to publish papers discussing the participation of doctors in torture under certain circumstances. As Editors of bioethics journals we are interested in sound critical analysis, wherever those analyses take the substantive conclusions of papers in question. At Bioethics we have published religiously motivated analyses as much as we have published papers driven by secular modi of analysis. We will continue to do so. Savulescu certainly was right to publish the controversial paper in his journal, especially given that his peer reviewers indicated that the manuscript in question was worthy of publication in the Journal of medical ethics. No doubt there will be critical responses to the article, and that, too, is to be applauded. Arguments in our field cannot be tested by other means. It will be important for editors of bioethics journals not to yield to ideologically motivated outside pressures. We must not permit self-censorship to occur in anticipation of outcries by readers who find themselves in disagreement with content we publish. Instead, we encourage our readers to submit sound critical responses to analyses we publish. Express your rational disagreement in letters to the editor, critical notes, even article-length ripostes. I cannot think of a bioethics journal that would not welcome your response. Do not expect us, however, to respond to excited hand-waving in non peer reviewed outlets or on partisan internet sites. Time is too precious for this.


[1] J Savulescu. 2012. “Liberals are disgusting.’ – In defence of the publication of ‘After-birth abortion’. http://blogs.bmj.com/medical-ethics/2012/02/28/liberals-are-disgusting-in-defence-of-the-publication-of-after-birth-abortion/ [Accessed February 29, 2012]
[2] L Wahlert, A Fiester. 2012. Queer bioethics: why its time has come. Bioethics 26(1): ii-iv.