The “Forgotten” Bioethicist

Posted by

In the bioethics field, praise is heaped upon Beauchamp and Childress (B and C)for their guiding text, “The Principles of Biomedical Ethics.” They assuredly reap rewards by adding revisions to this book – however so minor.

Before I furthered my bioethics training, I encountered another ethicist W.D. Ross. I thoroughly enjoyed his book, “The Right and the Good” for its insights and attempts to generate a complete ethical theory. It was the most robust work I had encountered through my readings.

Ross was a Scottish philosopher who died in 1971. He is well-regarded in the academic institutions which makes it sensible that B and C encountered his seminal text. He attempted to make a sound ethical theory. That is, one that could assist in almost every ethical problem encountered.

“Fidelity; reparation; gratitude; non-maleficence; justice; beneficence; and self-improvement”

These are the derived “principles” that Ross used to create his ethical guidance.

B and C, clearly looked to these principles for guidance. Even directly pulling “justice” and “beneficence” from him for their book.

He even addresses the critical element called “moral residue”.  This is an instance in which the principles have taken you to their limit, where you leave doing the best you can. It is an essential action that you took but it leaves you dissatisfied. Ross openly admits that life functions like this.

Leaning too heavily on the “perfect” action would cripple many people’s decision making. Prescriptive ethics can be pleasant and neat at times. Yet, there is an absence in them too. Are they “true” moral dilemmas if they can be resolved in a quick formula? Life can certainly function as a serious of simple events. When it gets difficult, that is when the more robust systems work. That is where true ethics lives.

The most significant feature is the limit and humility found in Ross’s text. He acknowledges our innate inability to morally fail. He doesn’t seek to coddle our damaged ego after we fail. He acknowledges life’s messy and imprecise nature; compared to the approach of B and C, which is used to inform bioethics and the entire field of human subject research ethics, it clarifies the difficulty of doing our moral duties. Even that we may struggle morally and ethical resolution may never happen.

I am convinced that these ethical complications make for our most stimulating works of fiction since they don’t provide a simple solution. A classic example is “Sofie’s Choice” where she is told to choose between one of her children. The other is fated to a certain death. She chooses but never recovers from knowing the choice she made. Afterwards, her conscience is torn asunder for the remainder of her life.

There is only real takeaway is that ethics shines best when it digs into the nuance. When it says, we can’t provide panacea. You will struggle with your choices…….and that is expected.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s