Bioethics today

There can be no doubt that the public face of contemporary philosophy is the professional who goes by the name of “bioethicist.” Since the bioethics industry—which is what it is—sprang up in the 1970s, large numbers of professional philosophers have found it a congenial and remunerative way in which to make a reputation for themselves. A few general observations can be made about bioethicists. Some of them are well-meaning. For example, they are dedicated to the laudable notion that philosophy should be heard in the public square and have an influence on the making of policy. Or they believe, rightly, that the bioethical problems of our day are of such grave moment that philosophers should try to grapple with them, at least, and provide solutions if possible. It is not only that the welfare of society depends on such solutions, but that if philosophers, who are supposed to be trained in rigorous thinking, do not do the hard conceptual work that needs to be done, the void will be filled by the looser and fuzzier moral thinking of others—especially lawyers, politicians, and economists. Some are simply committed to the idea, again admirable, that bioethics is a serious intellectual discipline that demands equally serious analytical application. Some find bioethics just interesting and worthy of philosophical pursuit in its own right. Again, this is true. On the other hand, it is all too evident that very many, perhaps the majority, of bioethicists are, to put it frankly, less than competent. I believe that this is a view a good number of philosophers share. The bioethics industry is, unfortunately, populated by many individuals whom one might even call second-rate philosophers. They have found themselves unable to grapple with the more technical or abstract areas of philosophy—or at least to make a name for themselves in such areas—but have found that it is relatively easy to forge a name for oneself in the bioethics business. For one, there is an insatiable demand by the media for comment upon the latest developments in biotechnology, medicine, genetics, and so on, or for comment upon someone else’s comment upon such developments..
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