More History "Lite" in Modern American Bioethics

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article revisits a disconcerting phenomenon. The history of prominent 17th and 18th century moral theorists who exhibited disapproval of all forms of suicide is well known. Nevertheless, there are many bioethicists who continue to claim that either these moral theorists never actually opposed suicide, or that they never believed in the inalienable right to life and liberty that is an important basis for secular moral opposition to assisted suicide. These erroneous claims evince an improper historical methodology. They originate from the bioethicists' inaccurate quotation of the moral theorists and also from the bioethicists' unwillingness to understand the moral theorists in their relevant historical context. The author concludes that this attempt to obfuscate the true history of 17th and 18th century moral theory may also be removing a line of inquiry from originalist constitutional analysis that Federal Courts have a duty to engage in.


The academic study of history is a very old endeavor, while the study of bioethics does not date back to long before the Vietnam War. (1) Of course, history is important to all the politico-ethical disciplines, and it is also important to all the decisions that people have to make on knowledge derived from those disciplines. Be it the study of the Anglo-American common law, or of constitutionalism, or choosing the next President of the United States, knowledge of history is important to the endeavor. The American people cannot know where they are going unless they remember where they have been. Furthermore, the American people are part of a Western civilization that is much older than a mere two centuries. Consequently, in resolving political disputes, American voters are entitled to historical scholarship that is both truthful and accurate. This entitlement becomes only more evident when one's attention turns to the field of bioethics. Bioethics involves making decisions on politico-ethical issues such as abortion, assisted suicide and informed consent, all of which have long historical pedigrees. (2) Therefore it does not merely involve philosophizing on what should be, but it also involves recounting an accurate history of what has been and how humans can thereby develop a new, better ethic.

Over the last three decades, America's leading bioethicists have failed miserably in this task of studying ethics within a historically accurate framework. I have shown in a previous article for Issues in Law & Medicine how two of America's leading bioethicists, Tom L. Beauchamp and James E Childress, have adulterated quotations from the works of the great German philosopher and historical figure, Immanuel Kant. (3) Both in that same article, and then again in a follow-up article, I also showed how the American political philosopher, A. John Simmons, utterly misrepresented the history of John Locke's theory of inalienable rights in his Inalienable Rights and Locke's Treatises. (4) More importantly though, it must be stressed that both of these works of history lite subtracted from the American public's sum total of historical knowledge of the lives of Locke and Kant. When Americans training to be political philosophers and bioethicists take such fabrications concerning Locke and Kant to be true, they begin a process that leads to less and less accurate historical knowledge of Locke and Kant with each succeeding generation of students and teachers. With each new generation of teachers telling each new generation of students fabrications about Locke and Kant, pretty soon, the disciplines of political philosophy and bioethics become totally deceived. At that point, the Locke and Kant who most bioethicists think they are arguing with are nothing but figments of the bioethicists' collective imaginations. This cycle of ignorance cannot be good for the country, and it must be even worse for the country if it becomes perpetual. And yet, I fear that many who have read my writings in Issues over the past two years have come to the conclusion that the examples of history lite cited therein are nothing but isolated examples. …