Bioethics is Love of Life: An Alternative texbook

Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 1998, Darryl R. J. Macer. All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

1. Love as a common basis for life


1.1. Love of life

The gift that we receive when we are born into this world is love. While it is a gift that few are deprived of, a deprivation that is in itself an insult to the humanity that our flesh embodies, it is a norm for all forms of life for the new life to be given a good start. Maternal love may be shown in different forms but it is also a social norm of all human societies for the community to treat the newborn as a treasure.

The ultimate gift that we can share with others is also love. There are many ways to express it but at the origin of goodwill is love. This is why we may say love is a reflection of God in us. Love is the biological heritage given to us by our genes, the capacity that evolved in us to allow us to overcome selfishness that destroys harmony within a community. Our social heritage also gives us love, as the society tries to pursue harmony between individuals and communities. This love is built by give and take as in the dedication of this book, as we strive to give.

The title of this book came as book titles usually come to me, in the middle of the night, in a dream or as I was half awake. It seems that life makes us very tired at times, we rest, and another day begins. Yet this circle beginning in the womb and ending when the lid is nailed onto our coffin, should still keep us so excited with the hope of the new day to be joyous. That is love of life, and is something all people have a right to be able to feel. Other times we may get overwhelmed with activity, or inactivity, and become depressed. All through this circle the key to both perseverance and joy, is something fundamental to life.

To say that this key to life is love of life, is not new but something seen and shared by so many people alive and dead, that has become obvious, as seen by the range of quotations in chapter 2. Clearly too obvious because many seek other answers, usually more complex but not as satisfying, or universal. Love of life is seen in the bacteria who uses its last unit of energy (ATP) to move closer to food, in the dog who jumps into the river to save a drowning child, and in the love of a stranger who tunnels in the mud to free victims of an earthquake.

In this book I am going to argue that "love of life" is the simplest and most all encompassing definition of bioethics, and it is universal among all peoples of the world. The new society that I focus on is the international society, the global community, a heritage we hope for the future that is still being born out of cycles of war and peace. This society should be a construction of individuals, communities and regions with due respect given to all of the parts. We can think of the alternative images of isolation or dialogue, both features seen at different times in all societies and people (Figure 1). Each time we make a mistake in building this global community we try to repair it, the same for us as individuals, working towards a perfect whole.

Whether we can use the term "love" in the ways that I do is something readers will judge at the end, and no doubt still some people will stay divided. I write this book in the academic spirit of "Bioethics for the People by the People" (Macer, 1994). That means describing the bioethics that we living organisms have to each other, then extending that earlier book to reach into prescribe what bioethics we should have. The presence of pictures may be a distraction or a reinforcement, but it comes from an inability for any of us to share such broad concepts with only words.

This book is intended as an alternative textbook for introduction to the subject of bioethics, one which it is hoped will be consistent with your experiences not only mine. The need for bioethics is being re-emphasized internationally, in UN Declarations, in statements of scientists and teachers, in the views of ordinary people, and as a response to the decay in moral fabric of societies as seemingly distant as Eskimos and Tamils. As I have been teaching bioethics for a decade, I have found that the available textbooks have several problems. Firstly they are U.S. or Western-centred, which is not appropriate for any theoretical book purporting to be universal. Secondly, the academic discussion of bioethics is usually very complex for what should be common sense, making the theory or ideals the domain of academics only. This is interesting given that most approaches to bioethics claim to focus on decision-making for ordinary citizens. Thirdly, they avoid to take on the deep motives behind moral action, avoiding emotions and claiming principles of reason are sufficient. At the end of this book I hope that readers will not find this so true of this book, and we may be able to refocus on a common thread for practical universal bioethics.

Furthermore, bioethics of the classroom and practice often ignores an apparent hypocrisy because the same proponents of theories of bioethics no doubt use their emotions for decision-making while theory says principles should be used. While there may always be hypocrisy in our actions and our theory, it is irresponsible for academic experts to teach students that moral dilemmas can be solved by a simple balancing of principles applied to particular cases, while in practice other factors dominate choices.

1.2. Bioethics

Bioethics is both a word and a concept. The word comes to us only from 1970 (Potter, 1971), yet the concept comes from human heritage thousands of years old (Macer, 1994). It is the concept of love, balancing benefits and risks of choices and decisions. This heritage can be seen in all cultures, religions, and in ancient writings from around the world. We in fact cannot trace the origin of bioethics back to their beginning, as the relationships between human beings within their society, within the biological community, and with nature and God, are formed at an earlier stage then our history would tell us.

To begin with we need to think of what we mean as "bioethics". I think there are at least three ways to view bioethics.

1. Descriptive bioethics is the way people view life, their moral interactions and responsibilities with living organisms in their life.

2. Prescriptive bioethics is to tell others what is ethically good or bad, or what principles are most important in making such decisions. It may also be to say something or someone has rights, and others have duties to them.

3. Interactive bioethics is discussion and debate between people, groups within society, and communities about 1 and 2 above.

Developing and clarifying prescriptive bioethics allows us to make better choices, and choices that we can live with, improving our life and society. The choices that need to be made in the modern biotechnological and genetic age are many, extending from before conception to after death - all of life. The timing of reproduction, contraception, marriage choice, are not new. Euthanasia, a good death, is also an old choice, forced upon us by our mortality. In order to inform our prescriptive bioethics we need to describe the bioethics that people have been following, and the bioethic that they have today, which was largely the focus of the earlier book, Bioethics for the People by the People. It would suggest that there is almost never a single ethically correct way for a person to resolve a dilemma that they face.

We can find various definitions of bioethics, the simplest would be consideration of the ethical issues raised by questions involving life ("bio"). I would include all of the above issues of medical ethics, as well as questions I face each day, like "What food should I eat?", "How is the food grown?", "Where should I live and how much disturbance of nature should I make?", "What relationships should I have with fellow organisms including human beings?", "How do I balance the quality of my life with development of love of my life, other's lives and the community?", and so many more you can think of. The history of bioethical reasoning is influenced by our genes, and the forces that shaped and continue to shape these genes into the people, society and cultures that we have. We now have the power to change not only our own genes, but the genes of every organism, and the power to remodel whole ecosystems of the planet, which has made many focus on biotechnology applications however the key questions are more basic. New technology has nevertheless been a catalyst for our thinking about bioethics, which have been stimuli for research into bioethics in the last few decades.

There are a set of principles or ideals which people use as a common ground for bioethics, or which at least have been suggested to be the key ones. These will be explored in chapter 3. They include the autonomy of individuals to make choices, while respecting the choices of others, justice. In all things we do, the ideal is to avoiding doing harm, and trying to do good, and as I will argue, these can be summarized by the word love. Other terms may also stem from these ideals, such as human rights, animal rights, stewardship, harmony, but in the end these terms also come from love. In addition to reviewing observations of descriptive ethics and meta-ethics, this work goes further. This book proposes a theory of prescriptive or normative ethics, meaning norms for guidance and evaluation of conduct that is worthy of moral acceptance. However, its familiarity with decisions we have all made should make it practical.

I use "we" in this book, but as friends or colleagues may already know, this is more than a so-called "Royal We". We live on this planet together with many others, some of us have a mind and some do not, some can move and some cannot, some can feel pain and others can not, and there are several million different species alive on the planet. I do not exclude those who may exist elsewhere, nor those we will make as new species, genetic clones or carbo-silicon androids.

The challenge for ethics is how to define a "moral agent". It is not necessarily someone who looks as we expect, rather we have to look at our criteria and discuss those who are included or excluded. It is not only some species who can manipulate the world as they like, reshaping it physically and genetically. It may be a species that takes pleasure in leaving it as it is, and not seeing joy in remoulding the environment. That mistake has been repeatedly seen in ethics arguments, yet as a gardener knows, seeds can reshape the soil in many ways we cannot see. Microorganisms that live in the water and soil are reshaping the nutrients that are essential to life but we cannot see most of them with our naked eye. Yet can we say that the actions of a seed or microbe are love of their life, or of others, or love at all? How can we define love?

1.3. Outline for love

While I had worked on material for a book on universal bioethics for five years, I started the first pages of this book a few weeks after giving an eulogy at my mother's funeral. I reflected that her "love of life" had led me to the view, bioethics is love of life, that I have included in almost all papers since 1994. The personal origins for my writing on love however go back twenty years when I started to write music about love. I have said bioethics is love of life in lecture halls around the planet, sometimes drawing criticism that this is non-academic. However, love is one subject written about, sung about, dreamed about, fought about, more than any other.

While we may feel love in the sounds of music and the rays of the sun from the sunrise, most love is based upon actions, whether past, present or continuous. While love without acts may seem dead, the love is still there before and after the event. The next chapter on "What is Love?" looks at definitions people have put forward in the past. Only a few quotations on love are given. In a literature search I did find one book called Love of Life, a short story by Jack London (1897) about the gold rush in the Yukon, but the expression love of life is much more common than that would suggest. Perhaps there is no one who can argue with the conclusion of chapter two that love is universal in human society over time, though there may be quibbles on whether the expressions of love are bioethics.

We all may agree love is dominant in our mind, but how do we extend an emotion, to a system to analyze our decisions? In chapter three I review the theories of ethics that have been proposed, both those that excluded love and those that included love. It is perhaps the most traditionally academic of the chapters in this book, and the conclusion is that love is the missing element in an integrated theory of bioethics. My apologies to those theories that I do not have enough knowledge of to include, but I hope that more can be shared to test this proposal that love of life is the central element in our bioethics.

While chapter two should give some idea of the breadth of the ideas on love that popular culture has shared, we next have to consider the boundaries to love. Love for whom is one question; love for oneself, other people, nature or all of life? Chapter four is titled "Love of our own life" and is a discussion of autonomy, selfishness and altruism. Can we escape from our selfish nature, and how much should we limit our desire? Love of oneself can also be called autonomy by some and selfishness by others, can we separate them? Maybe we can only become complete moral beings when we also love our own life, pursuing our capabilities, gifts and desires to achieve more of the potential that we have.

The strongest proof that love is the common basis of ethics may be what is in our hearts and conscience. But how do I confirm what is in my mind is in my neighbours' mind? As societies try to protect their identity or uniqueness, or justify their independent existence, they have tried to claim they are unique. They say that other cultures are different. The fifth chapter on "Love, culture and relationships" reviews some of the evidence to ask how similar we are to our neighbours, in the next seat, down the street, or across the ocean. In this chapter I review some of the fieldwork I have undertaken in the past few years to look at people in different countries and situations, including surveys, photos, videos and notes. While each culture should be protected, it may be incorrect to claim that other cultures are different. Usually such claims are based on either insufficient knowledge, or experience at two different levels in two cultures for those with the privilege to have lived in different countries and at different places in society.

Chapter six looks at the definitions of love that stretch across species boundaries, "No boundaries to love, and animals". Love preoccupies the human mind, and it would be naive of Homo sapiens to think it suddenly appeared overnight in our species. I will argue that helping another species may be the least ambiguous sign of an all-giving love above the shadow of selfish genes. It is a fact of life that species often face each other in dilemmas and should we just pursue the benefit, immediate or long-term, of our species, or should we love other species. This concept should not be unfamiliar to many, who live with pets of other species, but is there something deeper than personal companionship?

It is not enough to describe how we are as an individual, community, a species, or as sentient beings, there are serious problems to deal with that involve the whole planet. As I fly over Asia I see fires burning in the hills, often 6 or 10 can be seen in one glimpse. The hills are bared with woodland in a few pockets of former glory. Is the development of land into farms an act of love? Chapter seven examines environmental ethics, and how we may love the ocean or land. During my first 36 years I have been to all but one continent, Antarctica. The chance to spend a summer in the Deep South as a research student of biology may not be one that will come again. I was led to explore genes, molecular biology, I had a view that we can understand "life" by the genetic systems, and how they are shaped by the environment. The title of my first book, "Shaping Genes" reflects this, but also stressed that a broad overall view of a good life (eu-bios) is needed.

"Love for the Future" is the final chapter which looks at why we have a desire for survival of our family, society and planet. The idea to plan for the future may come from the oldest feature of life, survival of the young to continue the cycle. This may also be seen in other species, but when does the ability to plan become a "moral demand"? It is a basis for transgenerational ethics, and basic for our survival. Its balance with the counterpart, love of ourselves, represents the traditional fight between autonomy of self and of community, and justice for all.

By the end of the book the attempts at practical frameworks for decision-making will have become clearer. The balancing of principles, self-love (autonomy), love of others (justice), loving life (do no harm) and loving good (beneficence) can provide us with a vehicle to express our values according to the desire to love life. However, in the end, we are left with a simple fact of life, there are often no clear black and white answers to our dilemmas. There have never been and nor will there be, for many cases. As a society we need to understand the diversity which is universal, and tolerate with love what we can. There comes a time for protection of others, but we can remember the spirit of love which says do not judge. I invite you to judge this work for itself, and take what you can. However, never belittle the power of love.


Figure 1: How to deal with diversity?

The Great Wall of ChinaChina Maori Meeting House

- Isolation mentality - Protect harmony in a small community

Golden Gate Bridge - Bioethics Dialogue as Building a Bridge


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