The History and Future of Bioethics: A Sociological View

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It seems like every day society faces a new ethical challenge raised by a scientific innovation. Human genetic engineering, stem cell research, face transplantation, synthetic biology - all were science fiction only a few decades ago, but now are all reality. How do we as a society decide whether these technologies are ethical? For decades professional bioethicists have served as mediators between a busy public and its decision-makers, helping people understand their own ethical concerns, framing arguments, discrediting illogical claims, and supporting promising ones. These bioethicists play an instrumental role in guiding governments' ethical policy decisions, consulting for hospitals faced with vital decisions, and advising institutions that conduct research on humans.
Although the bioethics profession has functioned effectively for many years, it is now in crisis. Policy-makers are less inclined to take the advice of bioethics professionals, with many observers saying that bioethics debates have simply become partisan politics with dueling democratic and republican bioethicists. While this crisis is contained to the task of recommending ethical policy to the government, there is risk that it will spread to the other tasks conducted by bioethicists.
To understand how this crisis came about and to arrive at a solution, John H. Evans closely examines the history of the bioethics profession. Bioethics debates were originally dominated by theologians, but came to be dominated by the emerging bioethics profession due to the subtle and slow involvement of the government as the primary consumer of bioethical arguments. After the 1980s, however, the views of the government changed, making bioethical arguments less legitimate. Exploring the sociological processes that lead to the evolution of bioethics to where it is today, Evans proposes a radical solution to the crisis. Bioethicists must give up its inessential functions, change the way they make ethical arguments, and make conscious and explicit steps toward re-establishing the profession's legitimacy as a mediator between the public and government decision-makers.

"John Evans provides a trenchant reconstruction of the waxing and waning influence of theology on the bioethics canon, as well as an original proposal for a social science-based bioethics. This book will fascinate and instruct anyone interested in where we have been and where we should go in our societal conversation about deep human values."- Jonathan Moreno, University of Pennsylvania

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
Reviewer: Gina M Fullam, BS (Saint Louis University)
Description: This book presents a sociological view of the history, jurisdictional space, and justification of the field of bioethics.
Purpose: The author's purpose is to provide insight into the current crisis of legitimacy in bioethics from a sociological perspective. In addition, in an effort to affirm the jurisdictional space of and justification for bioethics, the author proposes a number of modifications for bioethics methodology. The author identifies himself as an outsider to the field of bioethics, but precisely because he is an outsider, he hopes to bring to light issues difficult to see from within the field. In this role, the author succeeds.
Audience: The book is written for those working in bioethics, whether as full-time bioethicists or as professionals in any number of fields who sometime wear the hat of a bioethicist. The book will also appeal to the general public interested in bioethics.
Features: After a somewhat vague introduction, the book offers a fantastic sociological history of bioethics, tracing both the changing engagement of religion in bioethics and the expansion and solidification of the three jurisdictions of bioethics: research bioethics, healthcare ethics consultation, and public policy bioethics. In the midst of this story, the author identifies the present legitimacy crisis of the field, particularly in public policy bioethics, as well as the source of this crisis: domination by liberal and conservative activists, offering diametrically opposed ethics, each claiming to represent the views of the public. To solve the crisis, the author proposes that bioethicists cease advocacy of their own values and turn to discussing policy implementation of the values of society, as shown by current sociological data. Still, the author affirms the place of nonbioethicists in "cultural bioethics" who hope to affect the values of society such that subsequent sociological studies reflect changed values.
Assessment: This honest, outside perspective on the history of and current crisis in bioethics is truly a delight in a field often dominated by activists proclaiming opinion as universal truth. The author offers a way forward that is appealing and acceptable in a democracy, despite several shortcomings: the author does not provide justification for the moral authority of majoritarian views, fails to acknowledge that sociological studies themselves are often value-laden, and may be too hopeful that bioethicists, more than politicians, can leave aside their own values to function as neutral aids to public policy discussion and formulation. Nevertheless, this book deserves a close read by all who consider themselves bioethicists.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199860852
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/30/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,259,903
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John H. Evans is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He has held visiting positions at the Institute for Advanced Study and Yale, Edinburgh, and Muenster Universities. He is the author of two books on bioethics, religion and genetics, as well as many articles about science, religion, and public controversies.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Emergence of Bioethical Debate and the Jurisdictional Struggle Between Science and Theology
Chapter 2: The Theological Retreat, and the Emergence of the Bioethics Profession
Chapter 3: The Rise of The Social Movement Activists
Chapter 4: Task Clarification, Saying "No" in Public Policy Bioethics, and Making the Argument for Jurisdiction
Chapter 5: A Modified Method for the Bioethics Profession
Chapter 6: Conclusion
Works Cited

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