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Jennifer Miller | author
Nov 01, 2012
Filed under Culture of Life

Limiting the role of religion in bioethics?

Jennifer Miller says the idea to extricate religion from bioethics is absurd . . .

Jennifer E. Miller

Extricate religion from bioethics — or at least treat it and its premises with distinctive hostility. This is the call to action in the next issue of American Journal of Bioethics. The argument is the premise of an article by Timothy Murphy titled “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics.”

Murphy calls for the creation of a new bioethics subspecialty — “irreligious bioethics” — dedicated to limiting the “overreach” of religion. [Webster’s Dictionary defines “irreligious” as “not religious, indifferent or hostile to religion.”] His precise vision for the role of the new subspecialty is unclear. Regardless of which progressively radical thesis Murphy holds to be appropriate, he fails to state a clear and convincing argument for any of them. Indeed, his desire to limit the role of religion in normative bioethics relies on three weak supporting premises.

First, Murphy calls for unique hostility towards religious bioethics arguments because they are “accessible only by logically prior commitments to certain theological claims.” On the one hand, the field of theological ethics is quite divided on whether theological claims are universally accessible through natural reason alone. Some authors may sympathize with Murphy’s thesis, but Catholic moral theology sees its bioethical arguments as universally accessible and based on natural reason.

On the other hand, this quality is not unique to theological ethics claims. If we are to follow Murphy’s line of reasoning, we would also need to remove certain philosophical currents from bioethics. Several philosophical assertions also rely upon prior commitments to certain claims, such as agreement on first principles.

Second, Murphy quips that religious bioethicists lack objectivity and are overconfident, stating that they are “convinced of their ability to address any and all issues in bioethics.” Again, these limitations are not exclusive to religious bioethicists. Subjectivity and overconfidence in one’s abilities are part of the human condition.

While Murphy fails entirely to identify any unique flaws inherent in the claims of religious bioethics and bioethicists, it’s unclear why any supposed flaws could not be remedied by other disciplines already operating within bioethics. Bioethics is arguably the most multi- and inter-disciplinary field in the history of academia. Participants hail from backgrounds including philosophy, politics, law, history, economics, business, medicine, neuroscience, and even zoology. As an impressively well-rounded discipline, it is uniquely well-equipped to uncover and address unreasonable and weak bioethics views which stem from any of the disciplines — be it religion or economics.

Let us suppose, for example, that a theological bioethicist on a national commission recommends a poor set of best practices for the treatment of a disease. The practices are overly expensive, medically dubious, and nationally unpopular. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of bioethics, an economist could demonstrate the risks of using an overly expensive treatment, a physician could argue against a medically unsound conclusion, and an experimental ethicist could provide surveys showing that the best practice was unpopular.

While Murphy fails to demonstrate why ill-formed theological bioethics arguments are unaddressable by existing bioethics subdisciplines, he admits that “bioethics should be free to cannibalize ideas … wherever it can,” which would include religion and theology.

On a purely practical level, completely separating bioethics from religion seems unrealistic or at least a formidable challenge, a point Murphy acknowledges. After all, the four bioethics principles of autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence — authored by Beauchamp and Childress — were influenced by religion. One of the two original authors was a theologian himself.

Murphy’s final argument for a new subspecialty of irreligious bioethics lies on the premise “that the discipline as a whole does not aspire to stake out a claim on the final merits of religion.” To be sure, bioethicists ordinarily do not investigate the merits of religion divorced from health related issues, but why should they?

Murphy’s call for religion to be eradicated from public bioethics (whatever “public bioethics” means) is neither convincing nor new. His views only add to polarization and advance a quest for justice, benevolence, and obligation without a theological world view on these issues. A hallmark of the discipline of bioethics is to accommodate differing views and to respect the faculty of moral reasoning and the trustworthiness of moral intuition, thus allowing for all voices to be heard. The richness of perspectives sheds light; anything less is regrettable.

Jennifer E. Miller, PHD, is president of Bioethics International and the EJS Fellow at Harvard. She co-wrote this article with Marie-Catherine Letendre, PhD, vice president of Bioethics International. This article is taken from an original commentary published in the American Journal of Bioethics.”


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