Handbook on Ethical Issues in Aging

By Tanya Fusco Johnson | Go to book overview

18
Ethical Issues in Aging: Synthesis and Prospects for the Twenty-first Century

W. Andrew Achenbaum

Handbooks lay a presumptuous claim to a place for themselves in the scholarly literature. Whereas most publications have limited aims and short shelf lives, works in this genre claim to represent the state of the art -- at least as defined by the field's leading practitioners. "One of the few generalizing influences in a world of overspecialization" ( Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985, Vol. 21, p. 555), handbooks are designed to render in-depth, topical analyses of nearly all the important facets of a major "problem." Ideally, each chapter should offer themes and facts in a manner accessible to the readers (amateur and expert alike) who rely on the contributors' ability to provide up-to-date, authoritative information. Sometimes historians use successive handbooks to trace how thinking has evolved in a given domain in order to establish a temporal baseline for setting future priorities. In this concluding chapter, therefore, it is appropriate for me, a historian of aging, to put the present volume in context and indicate how its value might be enhanced in future editions.

The first thing to note about this Handbook on Ethical Issues in Aging is its timely publication. We have long needed such a volume, but it is unlikely that anyone would have dared to compile such an ambitious compendium even a decade ago. There have, to be sure, been many handbooks devoted to ethics, a branch of moral inquiry that dates back to Plato and Aristotle in Western civilization. Classics by writers as diverse as St. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, and George Santayana still inform contemporary opinions about ethics. For all of their differences, these giants probed the moral attributes and normative meanings of human thought, language, and actions. They sought to establish and evaluate rules for differentiating between good and bad, between right and wrong. Over the centuries, schools of metaethics competed in the marketplace of ideas. Subfields rose and fell. We

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