Global bioethics: each culture its own “ethnobioethics”?

April 6, 2016

Pär SegerdahlWith globalization bioethics is spread over the world. The process isn’t without friction, since bioethics is associated with Western philosophy. Is that thinking applicable to other cultures? Parts of the world where bioethics is spread may also have a colonial history, such as Africa. Should they now once again come under Western influence?

In an article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Sirkku K. Hellsten discusses the role of philosophy in global bioethics. She uses the example of Africa, where discussions about a unique African philosophy have been intense. But she also quotes Henry Odera Oruka, wondering why so much time is spent discussing what distinguishes African philosophy, when so little time is devoted to actually practicing it.

To investigate the role of philosophy in global bioethics, Hellsten distinguishes (inspired by Odera Oruka) four forms of philosophy. I reproduce two of them here:

  1. Ethnophilosophy: Here it is assumed that different cultures often have incommensurable conceptions and worldviews. Bioethical key concepts – personhood, rationality, autonomy, consent, human nature, human well-being – have as many interpretations as there are cultures. The aim seems to be to develop these interpretations of Western ethical concepts and principles, to develop culture specific “ethnobioethics.”
  2. Professional philosophy: Professional philosophers, says Hellsten, are academically trained in critical, impartial, logical argument. (She distinguishes professional philosophy from the ideological tendencies of Peter Singer and John Harris). Although professional philosophers are influenced by their culture, they can recognize these biases and subject them to self-critical examination. Professional philosophy is self-correcting.

Hellsten points out that ethnophilosophical thinking, in its quest to carve out culture specific “ethnophilosophies,” on the contrary tends to make sweeping generalizations about cultural views, creating false oppositions. Moreover, ethnophilosophical thinking is at risk justifying double standards in biomedical practices. It can make it seem reasonable to ask for individual consent in individualistic cultures but not in collectivist.

Hellsten suggest that what global bioethics needs is professional philosophy. It can impartially scrutinize arguments and reveal contradictions and unclear thinking, and it can keep ethics at arm’s length from politics and rhetoric. It is a universal form of human thought that should be accessible to all cultures. Through professional philosophy, global bioethics can become universal bioethics.

What do think about this? I believe that Hellsten’s emphasis of “universality” does not quite strikingly describe the point I think she actually has. In order to understand in what sense she has a point, I believe we need to understand that bioethics is not only as a form of “thinking,” but also a concrete component of contemporary social structure.

Law (to take another example) isn’t just a form of “thinking” but also an organized part of the social structure: a legal system. During the twentieth century, we saw the birth of bioethics as another part of the social structure: as an organized way to deal with certain issues of health care and biomedical research (other parts of the social structure). Bioethics therefore has an obvious place in the social structure, and that place is: the university, with its resources for research and education.

So where do I locate Hellsten’s point when she claims professional philosophy’s role in global bioethics? Not in the view that professional philosophy supposedly is “universal thinking,” but in the fact that the university is the place of bioethics in the social structure. If we build hospitals and invest in advanced medical research and education, and if we develop legislation for these activities, it is in the university that bioethics finds the resources it needs to play its role.

So why is “professional philosophy” relevant for bioethics in Africa? In my view, precisely because one builds hospitals and makes investments in medical research and education. It would be odd if the efforts to build such a society were combined with an emphasis on tradition-bound “ethnophilosophy.”

We need to be clear about where we are: in the midst of an ongoing construction of society. And we need to be clear about the fact that ethics, in addition to being a personal concern, also has become an important “apparatus” in the social structure. In Africa, and elsewhere, it will certainly be faced with unique bioethical issues, like the legal system is faced with unique problems in different parts of the world.

At the same time, it is important to emphasize, as Hellsten does, the open and self-critical nature of global bioethics.

(I want to thank the Global Bioethics Blog for drawing my attention to Hellsten’s article.)

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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