The ordination of bioethicists as secular moral experts

Social Philosophy and Policy 19 (2):59-82 (2002)
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Abstract

The philosophy of medicine cum bioethics has become the socially recognized source for moral and epistemic direction in health-care decision-making. Over the last three decades, this field has been accepted politically as an authorized source of guidance for policy and law. The field's political actors have included the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research , the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, and the new Council on Bioethics; these groups and agencies have set forth rules on issues ranging from the role of humans in biomedical research to the production of human embryos for research, the definition of death, and the permissibility of human cloning. The members of the field are not just scholars and teachers in an academic realm directed to both theoretical and applied issues. They are, in addition, practitioners of a conceptual and moral trade that possesses a legal and political standing. This essay critically addresses the sudden emergence of bioethics as a societally recognized source of moral guidance, a source replete with authorized moral experts. Attention is directed to moral and conceptual assumptions that have led the philosophy of medicine, and especially bioethics, to acquire a quasi-juridical/political role in guiding clinical choices, framing health-care policy, and directing court holdings

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