Progressive bioethics-the words are not an oxymoron. Far from it; they are more redundant than oppositional. Yet they leave me almost as uneasy, as if they were contradictory. My unease exists because bioethics should be neither progressive nor regressive, neither right wing nor left wing, neither liberal nor conservative. It should be just good, sound ethics applied to the often difficult moral problems posed by present-day medicine and the genomic revolution.
I do not mean to suggest by this that all bioethicists need agree. Respectable ethicists using established modes of ethical analysis have long disagreed on and argued for different conceptions of the ethical across a range of issues far broader than the biologic. Ethical arguments are, however, not all created equal. While some philosophers have gone so far as to argue that ethical discussions are meaningless assertions of preference (Ayer 1936), these discussions in fact influence personal decisions and public policy. Moreover, ethical arguments, as Stephen Toulmin ( 1950) pointed out, may be well or poorly reasoned, and may be accepted or rejected on this basis.
There is no a priori reason to think that sound ethical arguments will necessarily support positions more congenial to liberal political philosophies or to conservative ones. Even progressive bioethics, as I conceive of the term, can lead to conclusions that the right, including the religious right, will find more congenial than the left, for in my view progressive bioethics entails more of a methodological commitment than a commitment to ends. Indeed it is precisely because agenda-driven conclusions are passed off as the necessary implications of ethically driven analysis that a commitment to progressive bioethics is important at this moment in political time.
Publication Information & Recommended Citation
Lempert, Richard O. "Can there be a Progressive Bioethics?" In Progress in Bioethics, edited by Jonathan Moreno and Sam Berger, 23-43. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2010.