Bioethics, Nanoscience and Society (2010)


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Miah, A. (2010) Bioethics, in Barnett, G. & Guston, D.H. Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Society, SAGE Reference.

"Bioethics broadly describes the philosophical analysis of moral dilemmas, which arise from the development and application of biological and life sciences, often through such practices as medicine. Bioethics became a formal academic discipline in the late 1960s developed through such institutions as The Hastings Center, which formalized research within academic journals and books. However, principles of bioethical concern have been apparent in a range of social practices for centuries.

Twentieth century bioethics was dominated by a global effort to protect human subjects from exploitative practices. In the post world-war II era, these interests focused on governmental experimentation, but quickly expanded to include a range of institutionalized practices that affect individuals and communities, including the military, elite sport, health care and employment. Theoretical approaches to bioethics in this era were characterized by a top-down derivation of principles, which aimed to provide overarching guidelines through which to codify ethical practice. Subsequently, bioethical theory critiqued the decontextualized approach of principle-based ethics and emphasized the complexity of real-world ethical decision making by developing a bottom-up or case-based (casuistry) approach. However, broadly speaking, approaches to bioethics encompass three main forms of moral reasoning 1) consequentialism (concerned primarily to maximize good outcomes) 2) deontology (concerned with the obligations we hold) and 3) virtue theory (concerned with what kind of character good people should have).

At the turn of the millennium, bioethical debates focused on the rise of genetics, as the Human Genome Project neared completion. The application of genetic science through screening, testing or transfer generated numerous public controversies about ‘designer’ organisms and led to the emergence of new biotechnological industries. Specialist inquiries into the emergence of genomics, genetically modified foods and a greater awareness about gene-environment interactions, slowly gave rise to a post-genomic scientific view and a resistance to genetic exceptionalism within bioethical research. To this end, attempts to establish a distinct sub-discipline of genethics have been largely inconsequential.

In this context, twenty first century bioethics faces a number of transformations. Primarily, there is a growing fragmentation of ethical communities (research and practice), which is giving rise to new terminologies, such as nanoethics or neuroethics. This fragmentation has been evident for some years through the overlapping ground between bioethics and medical ethics or environmental ethics. However, it is evident that this fragmentation will continue to grow through more specialist inquiries into subjects that include, for instance, the emerging subjects of information ethics, or the ethics of outer space.

Each of these sub-disciplines emphasizes the importance of transdisciplinary approaches to bioethics, which draw heavily on philosophy, law, sociology, political science, for instance. The fragmentation of bioethics is also amplified by convergence in the biosciences that operates around nanoscience. This process raises new questions about how to develop bioethical theory in a way that can accommodate new scientific practices. A corollary of these shifts is a growing sophistication in the bioethical method, which has begun to encompass narrative studies, feminist approaches to bioethics, cultural theory and aesthetics.

A final challenge to bioethics is the proliferation of new kinds of ethically engaged community and new interest groups, which themselves are altering the political landscape of bioethical debate. Prominent examples of this include discussions about human enhancement, as medical technologies increasingly make possible the ability to make humans ‘better than well’ (Kramer, 1994). It also encompasses the ethics of life or health extension, which arises as a direct consequence of attending to age-related disease. Many of these discussions have been taken up within a range of governmental advisory contexts, such as the United States President’s Council on Bioethics or the European Parliament."