Is Bio-Medical Ethics Failing?

What medical ethics needs is more and better philosophy—and a return to the adventurousness and originality of its pioneering days. There have been successes—euthanasia and better treatment of animals to mention just two. But the field has in many ways dried up or become dominated by moralists bent on protecting privacy and confidentiality at great cost and ‘getting consent’, and in other ways ‘protecting basic human rights and dignity’. Medical ethics isn’t sufficiently philosophical, and when it is philosophical, it’s the bad arguments or a narrow range of arguments that often seem to make a difference. And there is the attempted scientification of ethics in empirical ethics, a kind of sociological ethics, surveying people’s opinions and practice. But this can never directly lead to answering the question: what should we do?

That’s Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, arguing in the Journal of Medical Ethics that bioethics and medical ethics are failing. In his article, “Bioethics: Why Philosophy Is Essential for Progress,” Savulescu holds that bioethics and medical ethics are insufficiently philosophical, claiming they are plagued by, among other things, a slavish appeal to codes and laws, a lack of sensible thinking about coercion and exploitation, a kind of thoughtless egalitarianism, moralistic rather than reasoned reliance on ideas like consent, dignity, and privacy, and, overall, a general timidity.

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