Can Bioethics be done without Theology? Guest Post from Charles Camosy
Guest Post: Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, New York City
E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @nohiddenmagenta
The discipline of theological bioethics is in trouble.
Especially 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. Furthermore, especially in the Roman Catholic world, academic and ecclesial politics push against academics working on issues like abortion, euthanasia, health care distribution, and artificial reproductive technologies. After all, regardless of the position one takes on these issues, it is bound to run afoul of one of two orthodoxies: that of the Church or that the secular academy. Especially if not yet established in one’s academic career, it can be dangerous to be branded a heretic by one of these power brokers. Unsurprisingly, good universities are struggling even to find marginally viable candidates for excellent bioethics jobs. Most theological ethicists have decided not to write on bioethics.
But 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.
Some colleagues have suggested that the response should be to publish good articles on theological bioethics and change the culture. But 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. Meanwhile, the second-ranked American Journal of Bioethics gives a huge platform to target articles like ‘In Defense of Religious Bioethics’, a bracingly honest piece which explicitly argues that theology ought to be marginalized from serious bioethical discussions and platforms.
In response to a Twitter exchange about this state of affairs, the co-editor-in-chief of the journal Bioethics suggested that the reason for this:
— schuklenk (@schuklenk) November 8, 2014
I responded by pointing out that as bioethical discussions became isolated from theology they gained a reputation among many serious ethicists for being unacceptably thin. I also mentioned that rigorous and careful theologians built the early discipline—to which Prof. Schuklenk responded with “doubt.”
And why shouldn’t he? Few secular bioethicists appear to be aware of this history—or, if they are aware, few are willing to discuss its implications for bioethics today. In a forthcoming article he circulated this week from the January issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Art Caplan acknowledges in an offhand comment that, “truth be told”, today’s bioethics arose out of theology. But the abstract of the article oddly insists that bioethics had its “birth” in the 1970s. He isn’t the only prominent bioethicist to proceed as if bioethics was born 40 years ago, but by this time (as Charles Curran points out) bioethics was already a well-developed subdiscipline of moral theology. Indeed, theologians invented bioethics—which makes their current marginalization that much more problematic.
One mitigating factor in all of this is that many bioethicists seem genuinely unaware of this marginalization. Indeed, it is such a blind spot for the field that even important players like Eric Meslin, director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics, still feel compelled to go out and make public arguments for the idea that “secular bioethics may be more important than ever.” But 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.
Caplan is correct in his forthcoming JME article when it says that bioethics is now “shaping public health policy, exercising oversight of biomedical research, consulted by powerful organisations for ethical help and setting normative rules for the diagnosis and treatment of patients.” I’ve admired Caplan and others who have been able to bring bioethics out of the ivory tower, and I’ve attempted to do the same in my own career thus far. But I think it is important to acknowledge that bioethics advanced in this way despite being unable to make progress with respect to its foundational arguments. Indeed, these arguments turn on the very kinds of metaphysical questions of ultimate concern that Caplan and other prominent bioethicists are at pains to avoid. They cannot be addressed in 15 minute ASBH papers or in 2500-word pieces in journals of clinical ethics. And they certainly cannot be addressed in CNN sound bites or New York Times Op-Eds.
Philosophers and others rightly complain that contemporary bioethics, insofar as it focuses on practical issues of policy and the clinic to the exclusion of the ivory tower, is far too thin of a discourse. In order to adequately address its own questions, bioethics must do the messy, difficult and often frustrating work of drilling down into the differences between different normative traditions: from Care Feminism, to Hedonistic Utilitarianism, to Roman Catholic Thomism. It must go beyond merely floating above foundational questions and instead dive deeply into metaphysical questions of ultimate concern. 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. Indeed, rigorous theologians are often better partners in this regard than are rigorous philosophers—who tend to look down their noses at attempts to take the insights of the ivory tower to CNN and the BBC.
To be fair, there are important exceptions to the general trend I’ve pointed out in this post. I’ve had wonderful public and private exchanges with multiple secular bioethical thinkers: from Peter Singer, to Joe Fins, to Julian Savulescu. But, in general, those who hold power in the world of secular bioethics tend to exclude theological approaches. In the interest of (1) genuine commitment to a pluralism which welcomes a truly diverse set of approaches and (2) the authenticity of a bioethics field constituted by questions of ultimate concern, this simply has to change. Theologians, 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.