Should Religion Play a Greater Role in Bioethics?

Should Religion Play a Greater Role in Bioethics?

A perennial theme in bioethics has been whether, and to what extent, religion ought to play a role.  Recently, Timothy Murphy has gone so far as to propose an “irreligious bioethics,” built upon a “disregard for religion or even a degree of hostility” (Murphy, 2012, 3).  A common critique against positions such as Murphy’s is that they attempt to achieve an irreligious, ametphysical, view from nowhere, which is now widely regarded to be a fiction.  I call this the argument from inevitable presuppositions (AIP).  Consider the following passages:

“All moral theories come with traditions just as convoluted and troubling as those one might find in a religion […] We encourage Murphy to examine the possibility that the irreligion he espouses is just as much a cultural artifact as shamanism” (Crane & Putney, 2012, 29)

“[T]he ideal of secular medicine as a realm of reason and therefore as untroubled by deep metaphysical and moral disagreements is a fantasy” (Biggar, 2015, 1)

“No philosopher, politician or humanist marches into the contest armed only with the sharp sword of reason, stripped naked of the costume of any moral culture” (Cahill & Callahan, 1990, 14)

The AIP consists in making the charge that the liberal, scientific, naturalistic viewpoint taken up by Murphy and others is just as full of presuppositions and metaphysical troubles as any other tradition.  The attempt to obtain a more rational perspective by which to judge religion as irrational is impossible.  Charles Camosy makes the point this way:

Consider that secular utilitarian traditions are defined by their authoritative, faith-based and transcendent answers to the following kinds of questions. What is that about which we should be ultimately concerned? Maximizing good consequences. How are we to determine what counts as good consequences? Some will say “pleasure over pain”; others will talk about preferences satisfied over preferences thwarted”; still others “happiness over unhappiness.” How do we aggregate consequences? “One counts as one and none more than one.” But who counts as one? Do future or potential persons count? […] Answers to these (and many other) big questions are derived from the authoritative, transcendental, faith-based, first principles of traditions like hedonistic and preference utilitarianism (Camosy, 2012, 14).

    Timothy Murphy has responded to these “tu quoque” replies by arguing that the difference between religious and nonreligious standards is that the presuppositions of religious standards are “accessible only by logically prior commitments to certain theological claims” (Murphy, 2012, 7).  Murphy contrasts the Vatican’s view excluding gay marriage on the grounds that marriage between a man and woman is “something wisely and providently instituted by God the Creator with a view to carrying out his loving plan in human beings” (Faith, 2009) to an argument that claims “same-sex marriage is a threat to the psychological well-being of children.”  Murphy’s claim is that whether same-sex marriage is a threat to the psychological well-being of children is a claim that can be “analyzed and evaluated without any prior assumptions that are logically inaccessible by all” (Murphy, 2012, 7).  

This is precisely the claim murphy’s detractors will not allow him to get away with, as “well-being” is always tied up with “prior assumptions” that may very well be logically inaccessible to others.  Because the concept of well-being must be grounded in thick commitments of some kind - utilitarian, deontological, virtue ethic, naturalistic, etc -what seems like a relatively innocuous concept like “well-being” is always already deeply entangled in metaphysical, “logically prior” assumptions.  Because of this, I have decided to take a different approach than arguing that some metaphysical claims are more metaphysical than others.  Rather, I aim to show that the particular metaphysical claims of standard theism are incompatible with the AIP.  Standard theism is the conception of God as a personal, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, creator, transcendent being (Peterson, 2013, 10).  It seems one could posit the AIP or standard theism, but not both.    

    The AIP can be read as leading to epistemic relativism. The relativistic reading sees no way to adjudicate between various sets of presuppositions.  All reasoning proceeds from fundamental moral-metaphysical claims, what one comes to believe as rational will be relative to the presuppositions from which one begins. Reason cannot get behind one’s presuppositions to determine which set of presuppositions is the correct or rationally superior set. Chris Durante claims that the best one can hope for in terms of being “rational” on this view is a mindfulness of the presuppositions and limitations of one’s view” (Durante, 2012, 20).  

    Aside from the traditional philosophical problems that haunt relativism, I think there is a special kind of incompatibility between relativism and belief in standard theism.  If God exists and issues moral commandments that he wants us to know, then he would not have created a world where we are forced to accept a set of presuppositions without any means to rationally adjudicate among them.  Why an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God would have created a world where we have no basis for choosing one set of assumptions over another remains a mystery.  How could we be blamed for selecting the “wrong” starting assumptions and for never coming to know the correct moral commandments which he has issued?  The epistemic reality described by a relativistic reading of the AIP is incompatible with the notion of a God that created the world with specific moral principles by which he wants us to live.  If God has important truths he wants us to know, then we should expect a better way of knowing than what epistemic relativism provides.  

     In sum, there may be good reasons for religious belief to have greater influence in bioethics, but the AIP is a problematic strategy for reaching that conclusion—as it describes humanity in an epistemic situation incompatible with the God of standard theism.  



Biggar, N. (2015). Why religion deserves a place in secular medicine. Journal Of Medical Ethics, 41(3), 229-233. doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101776

Cahill, L. S., & Callahan, D. (1990). Can theology have a role in `public' bioethical discourse? Hastings Center Report, 20(4), 10.

Camosy, C. C. (2012). The Role of Normative Traditions in Bioethics. American Journal of Bioethics, 12(12), 13-15. doi:10.1080/15265161.2012.725349

Crane, J. K., & Putney, S. B. (2012). Exorcising Doubts About Religious Bioethics. American Journal of Bioethics, 12(12), 28-30. doi:10.1080/15265161.2012.719274

Durante, C. (2012). Extending the Hermeneutics of Suspicion Beyond Irreligiosity. American Journal of Bioethics, 12(12), 19-20. doi:10.1080/15265161.2012.719276

Faith, C. f. t. D. o. t. (2009, September 3, 2016). Instruction dignitas personae on certain bioethical questions.   Retrieved from

Murphy, T. F. (2012). In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics. American Journal of Bioethics, 12(12), 3-10. doi:10.1080/15265161.2012.719262

Peterson, M. L. (2013). Reason and religious belief : an introduction to the philosophy of religion: New York : Oxford University Press, [2013] 5th ed.

Get a Six-Pack with a Twelve-Pack

Get a Six-Pack with a Twelve-Pack

Maternal Mortality Rates on the Rise in the US

Maternal Mortality Rates on the Rise in the US