8.1. Universality of bioethics in love

pp. 144-146 in Bioethics and the Impact of Human Genome Research in the 21st Century

Author: Darryl Macer (Eubios Ethics Institute, New Zealand and Japan)

Editors: Norio Fujiki, Masakatu Sudo, and Darryl R. J. Macer
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2001, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

At the end of this conference we are left with the question, is love of life the key source of the bioethic that all people have? I challenge anyone to find another source of reasoning or emotion that is stronger than love.

While we cannot scientifically prove that love is real, that love shapes our life, and is the foundation to our personal and social development, it would be a naive person to claim that human beings are not moulded to a significant degree by the love acting in their life. In the exception which is to kill, people usually kill "to defend something they love, their land, their families, their view of life". The power of love is great, shaping many actions, and in the end it has been shown to have the power to overcome hate and discrimination, as seen in the lives of crusaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the 20th century.

Love is a common person's definition of ethics, and I think it should refocus our attention on where we should be looking to "develop" bioethics. We can review literature, history, and the reasoning people have in surveys and interviews. People have been using ideas of bioethics over history, especially in religions. Bioethics is the part of this behaviour, ethics, that relates to biological questions, and to all human relationships. It is time for improvement though. As Martin Luther King said, "humanity is waiting for something other than blind imitation of the past... We must be hammers shaping a new society rather than anvils moulded by the old. This will not only make us new men, but will give us a new kind of power...It will be power infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope."

The major criticism of the use of love as the guiding principle of ethics is that it is not concrete, and leaves problems in deciding standards of value and defining situations. However, some of this concern is resolved if we consider love as an intelligent process of acting for the good of people, respecting persons and avoiding harm. There is room for primie facie principles to help decide cases, but these can be expressed in the language of love, and this may be the way that people do actually make decisions.

I have argued that all people have a bioethic of behaviour, and we share many of the points used in the process of reasoning, although the decisions may differ. The first objection to this view that love is universally appreciated, is something that it is apparent to anyone who looks at the problems of the world, namely that the ethical principles people are using are not working very well. This does not mean that the ethical guidelines that are used by particular groups of people will not succeed in developing a better world, but it does mean that none has been able to be applied universally all the time, and it makes us ask whether love is the descriptive principle of bioethics?

Conversely, another popular belief is that we are seeing the emergence of a one-world culture, from developments in communication, transportation and trade. This links people together, so that they wear the same clothes (e.g. blue jeans), they eat the same kind of foods (e.g. hamburger culture and fast food chains), they read the same kind of newspapers or view the news on the Internet or cable television networks. We will all use the same gene tests in the end. There is also a trend for political groups to become larger and more integrated, as seen in the development of regional blocks, the European Union being the most integrated, making people predict the formation of a single world government more integrated than the United Nations of today. However, power struggles tend to split these large groups apart as well. Trade is being controlled more by multi-national companies, which requires the presence of international law and ethics to police, because their power is stronger than many governments.

The extent of diversity or similarity in universal ethics can be scientifically measured, and it is important to gather further data on these questions. Basically that data suggests that the diversity of thinking within any one group is much greater than that between any two groups, therefore basic universal principles may be used in deciding these issues. The social environment that people grow up in, and the education strategies, are becoming more similar with time suggesting that a universal approach is even more possible now than it was a century ago. There is a universal diversity of views, and such data is a challenge to all of us to incorporate or explain into any description of the real world. Only when we accept that others are the same as us is there hope to stop the ethnic and religious wars that have plagued the world.

We can also ask whether universal ethics is even desirable? Different societies have different goals, as do different people. This diversity is to be valued, and the type of universal ethics that I hope for is one which will maintain diversity. If our capacity for diversity was lost it would not succeed. Diversity is part of what we call being human. It is what could be called an integrated cross-cultural approach to ethics. We should never expect all people to balance the same values in the same way all the time, but the mistake that most make is to think that people in one group are the same. All groups are diverse, and we can never presume that our neighbour will reason the same way as ourselves. Love and respect for others demands that we should also give traditional societies a chance to adapt themselves to the modern life, rather than just merging them into the global modern order.

If we pursue global unity we should still recognize cultural plurality. We could define cultural plurality as social and political interaction within the same society of people with different ways of living and thinking. If we accept plurality we reject bigotry, bias and racism in favour for the respect for traditions of all in society, but this ideal is seldom met. There is usually some type of ethnocentrism which prevents plurality.

Therefore universalism in the sense that everyone thinks the same way and balances ideals of action the same way is not possible. Nevertheless, there are numerous benefits if basically similar values, or principles, can be used by all people and societies, and harmony and tolerance are two. All would agree that tolerance of cultural diversity is generally welcome. The limits to tolerance are already broadly outlined in international covenants such as the Declaration of Human Rights, and the new International Declarations like the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights.

Reproductive choice is a domain given to individuals to control. Birth control is essential, to reduce the numbers of humans. This is a medical but also a political issue, as seen by the fact that even some scientific academies of the world do not agree. In 1993 an international gathering of scientific academies called for zero population growth, however, the academies from Africa disagreed, saying overpopulation is not a problem for Africa. Let us hope that in several generations time their children do not have to face the dire consequences of ignoring population growth. In addition to growth in population, other lifestyle factors are important. Fairness in the distribution of food and materials would decrease the needs of the poor, an economic and political issue.

The broadest concept of the human family is the entire world, and the term human family has been used in United Nations declarations. It has ancient roots, whether it be in Christian concepts of the world or those Mo Tzu in China. Mo Tzu argued that practicing universal love was in one's long term interests not only because other human beings tend to respond in kind to benefits and harms received, but also because heaven wills those practicing the doctrine shall ultimately benefit.

As a biologist I see the development of the value of love of life quite consistent with a holistic view of life. Reductionists question why do people love others and love life? There have been various explanations of this. Richard Dawkins (1976) in The Selfish Gene suggested that human beings no longer are shaped by only selfish genes but ideas, he called memes. Peter Singer (1981) in The Expanding Circle looks at a similar question, how the range of human compassion grew beyond its primitive bounds of the family. He argues that the autonomy of reason from self-interest has lead to the idea of disinterested defense of one's conduct, and "in the thought of reasoning beings, it takes on a logic of its own which leads to its extension beyond the bounds of group". The recent concept of love of other in human beings has developed independently over the past millennia in religions of ancient urban civilizations, China, India, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mexico and Peru, and they all aim to stop excessive self-love. It is also interesting that often efforts to introduce love are made to combat excessive legalism found in the culture.

While I conclude that love is universal, what are the other ideals of ethics that are universal? How do we balance conflicting ideals? How do we balance protecting one person's autonomy with the principle of justice that is protecting all people's autonomy? Utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) is as the founders argued, rooted in love. But even if we make the goal as serving love or happiness, it is very difficult to assign values to different people's interests and preferences. Different people's interests will conflict, so that there are exceptions to the maintenance of privacy and confidentiality. Many medical and environmental technologies are challenging because they involve technology with which both benefits and risks are associated, and will always be associated. Sometimes love of technology replaces love of the object, and the love of the object may replace the goal of good, beauty or happiness, that Plato argued for. Human beings are challenged to make ethical decisions, they have to. The benefits are great, but there are many possible risks - the greatest of which is to do nothing.

The precise outcome of interventions in nature or medicine is not always certain. This uncertainty can be called a risk of failure or chance of success. This is common to diverse activities such as taking a new medicine, driving a car, generating energy, or production of materials. It has taken major ecological disasters to convince people in industry or agriculture of the risks. Introducing new organisms to the environment is also associated with risk. We may never be certain to have complete control over the effects of introducing new gene sequences, and with many cases much further experimentation is required before we will be able to ethically allow full scale use of them. We will never know exactly how one person will react to a drug or treatment, especially if it is novel. Ignorance of the consequences means caution in using new techniques, and this is an approach seen in the regulations governing the introduction of new organisms into the environment, the basis of quarantine regulations, or the need for ethical review boards for human experimentation and clinical trials, respectively.

In order to have a sustainable future, we need to promote bioethical maturity. This is one goal of these conferences held over the past week, and in fact, the past decade. We could call the bioethical maturity of a society the ability to balance the benefits and risks of applications of biological or medical technology. It is also reflected in the extent to which the public views are incorporated into policy-making while respecting the duties of society to ensure individual's informed choice. Awareness of concerns and risks should be maintained, and debated, for it may lessen the possibility of misuse of these technologies. Other important ideals of bioethics such as autonomy and justice need to be protected and included in the benefit/risk balancing which is important for the ethical application of biotechnology in medicine. Concern about technology should be valued as discretion that is basic to increasing the bioethical maturity of a society, rather than being feared as a barrier to the implementation of new technology.

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 that 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. Never belittle the power of love.

Does the presence of an ideal put someone off striving harder to help others? Do people just give up totally and become bad? Generally we do not, though hope should be given when we are disappointed by our own failings to reach the ideal. Love points us to face others, we are not isolated individuals but one family of life. At least we can conclude that we should all try a little harder to reach the common ideal, and the world would be a better place. Let us try.


Darryl Macer, Bioethics is Love of Life (Eubios Ethics Institute 1998).

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