Foundations of East Asian Bioethics
Keynote address at the > East Asian Conference of Bioethics 1995

>- Hyakudai Sakamoto, Ph.D.
Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Nihon University,
3-25-40 Sakurajosui, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 156, Japan


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 31-32.
1. Introduction

I am quite honoured to be a keynote speaker of this world's first, and extremely important conference on East Asian bioethics. This conference was first planned by Professor Qiu Renzong, China and I, from Japan with the common understanding that, in the East Asia, studies in bioethics stand far behind the Western standard, and also bioethics in the East Asian region might be fundamentally different from the Western pattern in its cultural, ethnological and also philosophical basis, reflecting the present day multi-cultural post-modernism. I myself, in these past few years, expressed my view of this at several occasions of the international conferences and congresses, including the Third International Seminar on Bioethics in Fukui, Japan and the 2nd World Congress of the International Association for Bioethics at Buenos Aires, Argentina last year. In some cases my view was sympathetically welcomed but in some other cases it was strongly rejected. In the following, I will discuss my philosophical ideas on the foundations of the possible East Asian bioethics together with their controversial points.

2. What is the nature of the Western bioethics?

To begin with I will examine the essential nature of the Western bioethics. in the Western world, bioethics, distinguished from the medical ethics, emerged only in late 1960's, when at the culmination of "innovation" of science and technology, the movement of technology assessment (TA) was promoted in advanced nations, especially in the USA and also in japan, being afraid of unexpected harmful effects of modern or contemporary development of sciences and technologies including biosciences and biotechnologies. This movement of technology assessment came to japan, but did not reach to China (I presume China has never experienced the storm of TA. Why? This is a problem).

Now, what was the criterion to assess the science and technology at that time, i.e. 1960's to 1970's? I assume the criterion in the Western world (different in japan) was clearly "humanism", thus some sciences and technologies were banned because they were anti-humanistic. now, however, what is humanism here? Historically speaking, the "humanism" in the Western world was nothing other than "human-centricism" which was, as its natural consequence, backed up by the human "frontier mentality" according to terminology of Daniel Chiras. Also, this humanism was fortified by the modern idea of "person" and "human dignity" of 18th century philosophy of, say, I.Kant. Thus, "person" is identified as a rational being and therefore a human being, as a person, is given human rights, especially fundamental human rights, such as heroic freedom to conquer nature.

At the first stage of the technology assessment, the criterion of the assessment was clearly to protect "human being" from technology disaster, and this aim was easily identified with protection of human rights. This general mood reflected on the bioethics of the first stage describing "bioethics" as "the way to protect human rights from biotechnologies and through the course of debates on this issue, the traditional paternalism was severely rejected. From this point of view "self determination", "informed consent", "patients' right" etc. were recommended, and therefore, paternalistic attitude of medical doctors were criticized. in this stage, almost all issues of bioethics were treated by this principle, i.e. "protection of human rights". For instance, in the USA "bioethics" meant the "establishment of legal system about bioethical issues from the view point of human rights", as Alexander Capron suggested.

3. A turning point of bioethics in 1980's

However, bioethics came to a big turning point in 1980's. This was brought about by, firstly, the extremely rapid development of genetics and secondly, by the rise of environmental approach to bioethics, and thirdly, by the participation of Asian (or non-European) paradigm. First, in the end of 20th century, we almost obtained the ability to manipulate human gene or genome, by way of recombinant DNA, i.e. The ability to alter the genetic character of human body artificially. This implies the possibility of "artificial evolution". But how is this justified bioethically?

The first apparent bioethical attack was made by the Council of Europe in 1982 by its recommendation 934 on genetic engineering from the stand point of human rights. it says "human rights imply the right to inherit a genetic pattern which has not been artificially changed." However, we are now going to admit "gene therapy" which necessarily change the human genetic pattern artificially by names of medical treatment, which promises "human happiness". Here, human happiness has become a contradicting concept to the concept of the protection of human right.

Secondly, there occurred conflicts between the two different types of concepts of "protection of environment". One is to protect environment in order to preserve the best living condition for human beings of present or future generations. The other is to protect nature for its own sake. The former is typically human-centric, and it has been gradually replaced by the latter under the influence of recent developments of ecological knowledge together with the severe regret and criticism on the "frontier mentality" of modern humanism. people now tacitly confirming the value of nature itself, instead of value of human being.

Thirdly, the range of vision to look at bioethics has been expanded to the region outside Europe and America, especially to Asia. Many bioethical incidents happened in Asia which were quite strange to European mentality. For instance, Japanese rejection of heart transplantation from the brain dead body was quite odd for Euro-American minds. people has begun to notice the peculiarity of Asian minds in considering bioethical issues. Something is fundamentally different. First of all, in many countries in east and south East Asia, the sense of "human rights" is very weak and foreign, and they have no theoretical background for the concept of human rights. Rather they are concerned with overcoming of the starvation and poverty not by the human rights but by mutual aid. Recent introduction of the European idea of human rights rather caused ethical and moral conflicts. The view of nature is also historically heterogeneous from European. nature is something not to be conquered but something to live together with. generally speaking, I think they hold a holistic way of thinking instead of European individualism. Therefore, they, Asian people put higher value on the holistic happiness and welfare of the total group or nation to which they belong rather than their individual human rights.

Now, in the present post-modern age, it is quite necessary for our human society to globalize bioethics for its future development. But it is almost impossible to do this by insisting on the universality of human rights, hence, universality of Euro-American bioethics. Here is the reason why the new Asian proper bioethics is necessary.

4. The nature of the East Asian bioethics

Then, what is the nature of the possible East Asian bioethics? First, the new Asian bioethics should stand on the new philosophy concerning the relation between nature and human being. at least, "frontier mentality" of human-centricism of 18th century- type-humanism must be abandoned. also the simple minded naturalism of "laissez faire" is impossible, for we already acquire the ability and technology to control the human future and human evolution. We should now establish a new humanism without human-centricism, and also cultivate a new methodology to compromise this new humanism and the modern science and technologies to control human evolution.

Secondly, We should reconsider now the nature of human being apart from the theory of the 18th century philosophical anthropology of I.Kant and other idealists, which gave a ground for the idea of universality of human rights. instead, equality of "non-human rights" or, the "rights of non-human being" should be considered. at the same time, the idea of "dignity of human being" should be reconsidered. Why is human being exclusively dignified? At least, in some traditional ways of thinking in the East Asia, there is no idea of human dignity distinguished from animal dignity, and others. We must take the stand point of the "value relativism", which is a challenge to ongoing Western bioethics.

At the same time, we have to appreciate the fact that in Western societies, most people, even professional ethicists are still inclined to believe the absolute universality of "human rights" and also, this idea properly functions in leading and controlling their social systems, especially their "law systems" in the Western world. Our urgent task here is to find the way to make both positions concerning "human rights" compatible in order to find a new refined methodology of the global bioethics.

Thirdly, we have to investigate the new philosophy for the foundations of East Asian bioethics. I believe it must be grounded on the East Asian Ethos (borrowing Max Weber's terminology), which is fundamentally different from the European one in many aspects, and has experienced a different history from the European one, especially in modern age of these few centuries. Then, what is the East Asian Ethos? the East Asian ethos is, however, many-sided. Its most remarkable characteristics is "holistic" in contrast to European "individualistic". Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism are all overwhelming on the ethos of East Asian world in its depth still now. Their doctrines and precepts are all holistic in general. They tend to put higher value on nature, society, community, neighborhood and mutual aid than individual ego. It is a sort of severe anti-egoism. But it is not necessarily altruism either. It always seeks some sort of holistic harmony of the antagonists.

One might be afraid that this kind of holism is a sort of paternalism which was already rejected in the beginning of recent bioethics by the honored name of "personal autonomy" however, we should notice that some new bioethical issues such as issues of genetics and environmental crisis necessarily require some sorts of paternalism, of a non-Western type, but typically of an Asian type. Here, "harmony" is the key word. The East Asian bioethics will begin now with the effort not only to deny the European idea of individual autonomy, but also harmonize it with the new holistic paternalism of our own East Asian traditional ethos.


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