Editorial - Universal Bioethics: Old or New?

- Darryl Macer, Ph.D.

Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 4 (July, 1994) 43-44.

In my recent book, Bioethics for the People by the People (Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994), the background to the International Bioethics Survey in the first section is "Universal bioethics: heritage and hope". The concept of universal ethics usually provokes a strong reaction from those who say that this idea is a type of cultural imperialism. However, they make a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant. I am not primarily aiming to create a new set of ideas that could be universally accepted if we want to have a happy world. Rather, the first premise is that we already see universal ethics among the way people reason around the world - i.e. the first focus is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

The data and analysis of the responses to the International Bioethics Survey, which is presented in the book, are the data to test how universal the bioethics of the people are. The purpose of the survey was to look at how people reason about some bioethical issues in diverse countries. Perhaps it is my scientific bias, but I think any philosophical theory must be able to be tested by comparison with what ordinary people believe, how they act, how they live, and what their concerns are. Too many times we see philosophers selectively reading old or new literature without understanding of the countries. Their understanding may only be from the meeting of other academics -a group which we could consider sometimes unusual. Many argue about minor points, in other words "how to dot i's and cross t's", while being far removed from reality: past, present or future.

This is not to say that the past and present thinkers have nothing to contribute, they certainly do, the heritage includes social and spiritual ideas in addition to our biological heritage. A number of people have thought that there are similarities between the cultures and religions of the world before, which is something I share after time spent visiting and living in, different parts of the world. The next step is to test the idea, and discover which parts of the common heritage are fundamental, necessary, and desirable. For example, exploitation of the poor and violence or war are ideas denounced rather universally, so we could say "to do no harm" is universal. To protect one's family, and help the children grow into adults, is also universal, but whether the concept of autonomy is individual or family, and the protection of other person's equal interests, justice, has different emphasis in different countries. To be good, or love others, is generally universal also (though there are tribes which appear not to practice this, and certainly it is not always practiced). However there are problems in applications.

The survey found similar diversity in all countries (EEIN 4: 29-30), and we can probably see this in the responses to the idea of universal bioethics. We may all have a bias, eyes to look for similarities or differences, but let us try to test our ideas by the data which includes our observations. The conclusion that international guidelines are possible can come from the old focused eyes (hindsight) - description of past and present thinking, or from forward-looking eyes (foresight) - hope.

Back to Eubios Ethics Institute
Back to EEIN