Can bioethical principles truly be universal?
Every principle presumably has two absolute qualifications to be accepted within the field of bioethics: it must pertain to life and it must concern ethics. Two remarkably broad and inclusive categories, life and ethics do not convey any underlying stipulations or inherent particularities. In pure form, they do not secure a preference for any cohort of life, such as species or sex, nor any particular ethical persuasion. However, the elements of bioethics are not created within a vacuum; bias is an inevitability from which not even bioethicists are exempt.
James Keenan’s assertion that “the human being always belongs to humanity” encapsulates the essence of the issue: the consideration of bioethical principles always occurs within the bioethicists’ individual socio-cultural context. Thus, meticulous care is certainly at the forefront of attention in the determination of ideas intended for universal applicability, to ensure personal bias does not compete with the necessary neutrality. However, even notable contributors to the field, including James Childress and Tom Beauchamp, receive critiques regarding the potency of their theories as not truly being all-inclusive. Nonetheless, their four principles of biomedical ethics continue to hold great influence as moral decision-making guidelines. Although flawed, these cornerstone principles form the essence of the bioethics field.
Considering the diversity of the aforementioned qualifications for acceptance within bioethics, I question the efficacy of universal bioethical principles. Even a self-reflective lens applied in the development of bioethical principles does not negate the inherent potential for bias towards certain elements of life, nor the questionable legitimacy in designing broadband ethics. I believe that the limitations of the normative bioethical discourse lie in the continued practice of neglecting and accepting a partial, paradoxical tradition; especially one endowed with such an immense responsibility to society. However, reformation to accommodate inclusivity may not be an achievable or even desirable goal. The significance of a revision of bioethical principles does not lie in its ability to entirely rectify practical issues; this conquest seeks to advance the current and continued relevance of the field.
Keenan, James F. "What Does Virtue Ethics Bring to Genetics?”." Genetics, Theology, and Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Conversation, edited by L. Sowle Cahill. New York: Crossroad (2005): 97-113.
Beauchamp, Tom L., and James F. Childress. Principles of biomedical ethics. Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.