Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Bioethics and Ideology

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Bioethics and Ideology

Article excerpt

Gilbert and Sullivan said that everyone is born either a little liberal or a little conservative. Is that true? My brother, a Republican who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee in the Virginia House of Delegates, caught the eye of his Democrat parents by keeping a clean desk as a teenager and then joining the Marines. Surely suspicious behavior, predictive of a dissolute conservative life. But then I followed my parents and became a Democrat. He voted for George W. Bush and I, with a galloping case of emotional repugnance, voted against him. Of course, we have the same genes, more or less, and shared the same home environment, more or less. Now my children are all Democrats, and my brother's children all Republicans. What are we to make of such patterns?

I will use this forum to propose that, for those interested in ethical theory, a new category be added to the agenda, to be called ideological theory. Below the surface of debates on, say, utilitarianism versus deontology, lie broader but more inchoate ways of looking at the world and society, influential in the other debates. Arguments about the niceties of the familiar moral theories, conducted in the needlework style of careful, wholly "rational" analysis, serve to mask the lower ideological forces at work, which are usually a jumbled mixture of reason and emotion. That masking is of both a negative and positive kind. It is negative in hiding the real forces at work behind facades of tight rationality, and positive in leading people in directions that are not nearly as rational or tidy as they superficially appear.

Why was it, for instance, that critics of Leon Kass's President's Council on Bioethics attacked its conservative cast as an outrageous imposition of right-wing ideology on what should be a neutral body of rational deliberation--but failed to either note, or mention, that the three previous national commissions originated with Democrat administrations and featured liberal chairmen, liberal directors, liberal staffs, and overwhelmingly liberal members? Or failed to note that, in its deliberations and reports, there was far more internal division and dissent among the President's Council members than marked most of the other commissions? Kass's conservatism was out there on the surface, but its critics masked their underlying ideological bias. …

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