Bioethics: Its Scope and Purpose

Bioethics entails the objective appraisal of how our values, desires, and actions affect others, including animals and the environment. Medical bioethics focuses on issues, such as euthanasia, surrogate parenting, and genetic engineering, involving human health and well-being. These and other issues have been deliberated by the World Council of Churches and other groups. Increasingly, bioethical considerations are part of their discussions on remedying many social and environmental problems.

A healthy humanity is concerned about its humanity itself–its compassion for its own kind and other sentient beings. It has respect for all life, because it realizes that when it damages the environment, it harms itself. Bioethics, in this context, is a field of self-investigation and enlightened self-interest, and it therefore provides a foundation for meaningful human lives.

Bioethics offers a multi-layered, rational appraisal of our place in the world and how best we can live for the good of the planet’s life community. It mandates equal and fair consideration for human rights, animal rights, and the environment. It includes a temporal principle of transgenerational equity–having concern for the well-being of future generations and a respectful understanding of the wisdom and folly of our ancestors. We should forget neither our history nor the maxim, “We do not own the land, we borrow it from our children.”

The polemicized rhetoric and bickering within and among frustrated factions of the human-, animal-, and environmental-rights movements can be reconciled by the integrative approach of applied bioethics.

Bioethics can also be an antidote to our society’s dominionistic attitude toward life. Subjugation of minorities and other communities and war and other forms of violence will continue until we abandon the belief that we are superior to and apart from nature.

Within what some call the establishment–the government-industrial complex–bioethics is also taking root. Ethical conduct, ethical advertising, ethical products, and full-cost (social and environmental) accounting are beginning to appear on its agenda. Protection of endangered species, sustainable use of agricultural and other natural resources, loss of biodiversity, global warming, air pollution, national economic security, and industrial-economic sustainability can and must be considered in a context of bioethics.

Application of bioethical principles can help lead policymakers and corporations toward the most equitable and ethical means to achieve their desired ends. Bioethics can help individuals establish a common ground for consideration of the needs of many constituencies: those who speak for the sick and dying and those who speak for laboratory animals; those who speak for jobs and logs and those who speak for spotted owls and treasured forests, or native peoples and cultural diversity.

Bioethics is clearly a philosophic integration of human, animal, and environmental rights. It fosters an Earth- or Creation-centered worldview–what E. F. Schumacher, the father of ecological economics (or eco-nomics), termed metanoia. In governmental terms, the democratic process can be facilitated by giving equal and fair consideration to all sides or aspects of a given issue concerning human, animal, or environmental rights.

Decisions and full-cost accounting based upon bioethics include scientific, economic, legal, moral, social, and environmental considerations. These are in contrast to decisions that are purely “science based,” such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approval of the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment.

[A recently enacted European Union (EU) ban on allowing dairy farmers to inject their cows with BGH will cost the product’s manufacturers and investors billions of dollars. The European Commission (which drafts legislation for the EU) enacted the ban–and made its separate decision to put a moratorium on the patenting of genetically engineered animals–based upon the bioethical principles I’ve outlined here. In light of such developments, it would be enlightened self-interest for corporations to include bioethical criteria in their research-and-development decision-making process. Developing new products like BGH in an ethical vacuum is good for neither the stockholders’ nor the corporation’s public image. The moral complexity of many of the contemporary issues facing corporate entities, notably in the area of genetic engineering biotechnology, is considerable; it cannot be treated as “business as usual.”]

The moral component of bioethics is based on the principle of ahimsa–of avoiding unnecessary harm and/or injury while furthering human interests and the good of human society. Bioethics begins with the premise that all living beings and natural processes have purpose. The derivative or inferred intrinsic value of other sentient beings and each being’s inherent worth to its community are acknowledged as deserving of moral consideration.

The instrumental or extrinsic value of a given life form may appear insignificant when the life form is judged on the basis of its degree of sentience or intelligence. Such evaluation invariably proves to be in error. Without lowly fungi in the soil, for example, our crops and forests would grow poorly, and human beings would suffer the consequences. We should, therefore, be mindful of “the least of these” forms rather than destroy them with agricultural chemicals and industrial pollution.

Every community–human and nonhuman–has intrinsic value, not only to its members (in terms of security, continuation, and so on) but also to the larger life community of the planet’s homeostatic and regenerative biospheric ecosystem. As Aldo Leopold wrote in his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Philosopher Ralph W. Gerard observed, “If nature is found to be a world of interdependence, then man is obliged to consider that characteristic as a moral dictum.”

Actions and products that disrupt others’ lives and/or the life processes that compose our life-support system cannot be accurately forecast by using the scientific method alone. Bioethics demands that we pay attention to the long-term environmental consequences and to how our means and ends might violate the principle of ahimsa. For the sake of our humanity, dignity, and integrity, we are bound to avoid harming or injuring any sentient being or the biospheric ecosystem when such harm or injury can otherwise be avoided. We must all strive to live nonviolently, because to do otherwise is not only to harm ourselves but also to demean and impoverish ourselves and the Earth in the process.

Bioethics posits that all life has been created by forces we do not yet fully comprehend, and that life is ours only in sacred trust. One of the founders of bioethics, Albert Schweitzer, wrote, “Ethics is, in its unqualified form, extended responsibility with regard to everything that has life.” He is unequivocal about the sense of duty that bioethics instills, stating that, “The universal ethic of reverence for life shows the sympathy with animals, which is so often represented as sentimentality, to be a duty that no man can escape.”

In a highly pragmatic sense, bioethics teaches us that when we take care of the Earth, the Earth will feed us and that when we don’t take care of nature, nature cannot take care of us.

Bioethics provides the framework to help us deal more effectively with a host of issues in our personal and professional lives. It enhances dialogue and facilitates conflict resolution and, because of its democratic process, provides a firm foundation for a just and humane society.

A reverential attitude toward all life may be too much to hope for in a society whose materialism and consumerism ignore the intrinsic worth and interests of other living beings. An attitude of “live and let live,” at the least, would be a significant step toward recognizing such value. Aldo Leopold insisted that, “No man who would rather see a dead deer than a living one, no man who has not a profound belief in the doctrine of ‘live and let live’ has any right himself to a world so full of glorious living creatures.” The rights of fellow creatures to experience their own completeness, or ethos, and to fulfill their purpose on Earth, or telos, are supported by this doctrine. Those who contend that animals have no rights must deal with those who embrace the doctrine of live and let live and assert their right to insist that animals be treated with respect and compassion.

Legal enforcement of the humane treatment of animals is a right for all empathic members of society that all people should respect and endeavor to live by, in accordance with the doctrine of live and let live. Any society that does not value this doctrine will invariably suffer from the erosion of ethical sensibility, and inhumanity and the violation of human rights will become commonplace, if not normative.

As Émile Zola observed, “The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”

For more details see the author’s book Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY 2001 and his Website