Addressing the challenges of the ‘ethics of bioethics’: A framework of formal requirements to discipline theoretical bioethics aiming at policy-making



During the last decades bioethics has emerged as an important academic field of various scholarly approaches, meeting the challenges of health care and environmental protection. Some of these challenges come along with the development of new medical and environmental technology; others connect with issues of fair distribution of health care, respectful caring and treatment of patients as well as ethically qualified research involving humans, animals, and nature. In a global perspective, the competence of bioethicists is required in various settings such as governmental, clinical and clinical research committees. Further, their expertise is demanded in legal and business contexts as well as in the media. In accordance with these demands for bioethics expertise, centres and university departments develop and graduating programs are offered. The earlier hegemony of philosophy and theology in this field has been contested by the contributions of other disciplines such as social science, medicine and health economy. Against this background of an expanding field of bioethics, critique has been presented along different lines of reasoning, coming from both outside and within the field, and thus turning the status and organization of the research in the field into a topic itself (Eckenwiler and Cohn 2007). The main concerns are the possible inadequateness of the actual contribution of bioethicists and the authoritative role of bioethicists in contemporary bioethical debates. The most challenging critique hits the core of bioethics as it questions the “ethics of the bioethics” in how bioethical competence is established and applied. Is the field serving a too narrow and biased analysis of concerns, structured by existing relations of power? Do bioethicists sustain the expected role of promoting social critic by addressing injustice? Do they ensure that bioethical dilemmas are assessed from all relevant perspectives? Is the opportunity to affect and form policies fairly distributed? Do bioethicists deal adequately with the challenge of making normative claims on behalf of the public they are supposed to serve in a pluralistic society?

These worries must be addressed, but how? The approach I want to suggest is to organise the “ethics in bioethics” by a framework of formal requirements to be applied on theoretical works in the field aiming to support policy-making. This represents a new way to address the issue above. A multi-disciplinarily field of bioethics is appreciated as it opens up for a broad range of perspectives on the issues. Some have therefore suggested we must give up on the idea of making bioethics a single discipline by deciding upon one unifying and structuring method for how to approach bioethical issues. Rather, the field should be seen as determined by its content and not by a chosen method (Wolpe 2008). However, to encounter the criticism directed at the field of bioethics, the search for criteria for accountability in bioethical academic endeavours has risen within the field itself. Instead of trying to discipline work by a common method, scholars doing bioethics have drafted “codes of ethics” in order to professionalise the judgment of bioethicists (Canadian Bioethics Society 2003; Baker 2005).

My approach in terms of a framework can be seen as a third kind of solution to address the challenging requirement of imposing a normative structure on the field of bioethics. By developing a framework of formal requirements on theoretical bioethics aiming towards policy-making we will 1) avoid giving priority to a certain epistemological approach to bioethics (and thereby avoid narrowing the field), and 2) aim directly at structuring the work rather than the judgment of the researchers.

Kristine bærøe

PhD (filosofi)

Postdoktorstipendiat, Etikkprogrammet

Universitetet i Oslo
Postboks 1020
0315 Oslo

Mobil: +47 993 17482

Bærøes CV