My goal in bioethics has always been to help students think through their reasons for taking positions on various issues while trying to point out the bad arguments and counter-intuitively good arguments along the way. So as I imagine most bioethics professors do, I start with brief overviews of utilitarian, Kantian, and care ethics that we then use to pigeon-hole particular approaches to issues. (Utilitarian arguments tend to support changing policies on opt-in organ donation, Kantians tend to have the hardest line against paternalistic treatment of patients and so on.) But I rarely talk about people’s religious beliefs despite the fact that far, far more people see the world in religious terms than, say, Kantian terms. (Seriously, when’s the last time you’ve had a conversation with a non-academic about bioethics that involved the categorical imperative?) I examined my reasons and here’s what I came up with:
- There are just too many religions. Do I teach Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist views of stem cell research, or do I teach Sunni, Shia, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox, Reformed Judaism, Mahayana, and Theravadan Buddhist views?
- Religions are not monolithic. Just because someone is a member of religion X doesn’t mean that he or she will share religion X’s position on an issue in bioethics. She might have her own understanding of the religion’s teaching. Or religion X may not even have an authority on all matters bioethical (like, say Protestant Christianity). If there’s no authoritative take, there’s not much one can say.
- Religious positions often make assumptions that aren’t universally shared. If you’re not a member of religion X, religion X’s position has no claim on you. If you aren’t a Christian, then the Christian take on God’s right to do what he wants with your life won’t change your position on the morality of suicide and euthanasia.
But I think the deepest reason I don’t teach religious takes on bioethical issues is the following:
- Religious positions on ethical issues are only shorthand for deeper discussions in ethical theory. So the Judeo-Christian view of the right to life is a claim expressible in the religiously neutral terms of the debate over the moral status of fetuses as a person and what qualities one must have in order to have the right not to be killed unjustly. If we’re serious about the truth of claims about a right to life, the argument must be conducted in ethical terms, not religious ones. One reason that religions don’t always have monolithic views of bioethical issues is that individuals deliberate about issues in religiously-neutral, ethical terms.
Since (4) is my deepest reason, it seems like it matters that while many philosophers would agree, the vast majority of the population wouldn’t. In fact, they might see it as a kind of prejudice against voluntarist systems of ethics like the Divine Command Theory. Furthermore, they are far more likely to encounter religious talk about ethical issues than debates put in terms of consequences, autonomy, virtue, and so on. So grounding in religious views of issues in bioethics would be (a) more useful and (b) avoid an assumption about the nature of ethics that huge numbers of people disagree with.
I’m not going to start teaching bioethics in religious terms any time soon. But after thinking through my reasons, I do wonder if that’s not just a choice based on a pipe-dream that society will stop thinking about bioethics in terms of religion in the near future. If it is a pipe-dream, then maybe my students should be more informed about different religions’ views of bioethical issues in addition to analyzing the issues in terms of consequences, autonomy, and care.