Morality is a living set of ideas. As a society, our ethics and morals have not changed; they have instead evolved to reflect the current views of society. The traditional values held by the older generation do not reflect the traditional values held by younger generations. This doesn’t mean morality is dead, it just means each generation has breathed new life into morals. Bioethics is affected by changes in morals because bioethics, like morals, revolves around changes in viewpoints.
The origin of bioethics is traced back to 1803 when Thomas Percival1 first mentioned it in reference to medical ethics. It wasn’t until the 1970’s2 that the disciplines of animal ethics and environmental ethics became sub-disciplines. The demand for bioethics arose from the atrocities Nazis performed on those in concentration camps and those unknowingly used as test subjects in the Tuskegee Syphilis study. The Nuremberg Code in 19473 and the Declaration of Helsinki4 in 1964 set ethical guidelines for researchers and scientists. The guidelines have evolved throughout the years to include stricter language regarding research. These changes echo society’s emerging views on morals. Despite the expanding views on morality in the medical, animal, and environmental ethics, the foundation of bioethics remains the same.
In 1983, Beauchamp and Childress outlined the Four Principles of Bioethics5. The principles consist of Autonomy ( informed consent), Justice (equal), Beneficence (benefit others) and Non-maleficence ( do no harm). The Four Principles include the three principles found in the Belmont Report, but also add in the idea of non-maleficence.
When developing new interpretations of morals and how they relate to the Four Principles is necessary to look at society’s current moral trends. Views on sex, women, minorities, and LGBTQ issues have changed and continue to change as society moves away from Biblical roles and past societal definitions that restrained those groups. The rapid change in technology and biomedical research advance the perspective of how a person fits into society. Many people no longer see themselves as a part of a part of the greater good, but instead as individuals working towards a greater good.
Morality isn’t declining in our society; it is maturing and rising up to meet the needs of ever-changing research fueled world. Our society is bound together not by blind adherence to societal laws, but to the idea that individuals can harness our ideas to inform, create equal opportunity, and benefit society while preventing harm. Morality is not dead. Morality is rising up to meet the challenges society faces in a fast-paced technology-laden world.
Etziony, M.B. The Physician’s Creed: An Anthology of Medical Prayers, Oaths and Codes of Ethics Written and Recite by Medical Practitioners Through the Ages. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1973.
Potter, Van Rensselaer, Bioethics: Bridge to the Future. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
The Nuremberg Code, 1947.
World Declaration of Helsinki, WMA Declaration of Helsinki - Ethical Principles For Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. 18th WMA General Assembly, Helsinki, Finland, June 1964.
Beauchamp, T.L. & Childress, J.F. (1979). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.