The foundations of bioethics: Contingency and relevance

Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 23 (4):428 – 438 (1998)
In this essay, I proceed by, first, laying out H. Tristram Engelhardt's argument for the principle of permission as the proper foundation for a secular bioethic. After considering how a number of commentators have tried to undermine this argument, I show why it is immune to some of these advances. I then offer my own critique of Engelhardt's project. This critique is two pronged. First, I argue that Engelhardt is unable to establish his own foundation for a secular bioethic. This inability leaves him with only contingent points of departure for a secular bioethic, some of the more salient of which he has ignored. Second, I argue that even if Engelhardt's project succeeds, it is in danger of being irrelevant in a practical sense because it ignores important contextual dimensions of the peculiar enterprise we call bioethics. Ultimately, the proper foundations for a relevant secular bioethic, I argue, must appeal to certain contingent features of the context that gives rise to the need for it
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