The classical assumption in the discipline of bioethics is that the field is concerned with the dilemma of determining the most ethically appropriate action in the healthcare setting. However, in the modern times, bioethics has taken a different turn to incorporate broader thinking. Several authorities have sought to change the way contemporary bioethics is approached.
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Since bioethics has taken a more social dimension, it is evolving into a contentious issue. In fact, bioethics emerged in the American society before spreading to the rest of the world, and eventually getting acceptance among religious groups. All societies and movements that embrace the field of bioethics have their own unique interpretation of the issue.1
The two great wars of the twentieth century, advancement in human experimentation, and the questions concerning the mysteries of life and death were the very first issues that brought about the development of bioethics.
Almost all issues in bioethics relate to human health and the physical well being of an individual. However, bioethics has been considered a vague subject since its authority stretches across several professions. Medicine, politics of war, and economics are some of the most affected fields.2
Consequently, some ethicists have questioned the fundamentals of bioethics. In this regard, the moral and logical authority that allows the bioethics to interfere with the development of other fields is questioned. Most disciplines have their own set of ethics on which professionals rely on when making decisions in the course of dealing with emerging issues. Thus, bioethics does not seem to obey the principle of independence of individual disciplines.
Most religious people do not consider the subject of religion to be a complex field that must be studied and analysed. They consider religion to be embedded in human culture eternally. However, some scholars have given attention to the details of evolution of major religious beliefs, and tried to extract logic and reason.
Although the interpretation of the scholars rarely results to a consensus, several critical issues emerge. These issues or logical considerations help the modern day society to deal with the increasing situations of moral dilemma. The rational evaluation of the Christian religion to deduct rational ideas is what is considered theology.3 In this essence, theology is all about the most appropriate and acceptable logic in matters of moral importance.
Theology is an effort by religious authorities to discern truth about the teachings of Christianity.4 Since religion consists of moral values to be observed by those who believe it, theology analyses morals in every aspect of the society in which the particular faith thrives. This amounts to the study of ethical principles in various professions and disciplines.
Medicine and biological sciences are some of the disciplines in which ethics are of cardinal importance. This is because the fields deal with the human body, which most cultures and religions consider to be of great importance, and deserves respect.
Teleology distinguishes between situational ethics and religious ethics. While religious ethics do not consider the result of strict observation of ethics to be supreme, situation ethics allows the party involved in making an important decision to deliberate on the final outcome of an action that is about to be taken.
Thus, teleology is found in every philosophical principle that has the result in its consideration.5 When teleology is incorporated into the field of biological science, it encourages the people concerned to make decisions that have the most desirable outcome. This is because teleology has the cause as its first and the most important consideration.
The virtue of teleology is the main argument in situation ethics, which argues that blind observation of religious and cultural ethics is a retrogressive approach in maintaining progressive standards. Teleology holds that the reasons for taking an action should be substantial enough to justify the effort or the sacrifice involved in the particular undertaking.6 This calls for consideration of the circumstances in the particular setting.
When the issues of moral standards and the church are incorporated into bioethics, then, theological bioethics is realised as a new perspective in the field of ethics. Religious authorities, philosophers, and healthcare experts have examined this new perspective of theological bioethics. Their ideas merge to form a new branch of ethics, which incorporates religious teachings. Ethicists such as pope john Paul argued that the religious considerations and the value of human anatomy were critical in the field of medicine.7
While scientists were trying to develop concepts in the field of medicine, religion had perfected idealistic concepts for all aspects of life. Theological bioethics actually opposed all radical actions that scientist took in the course of research, or in dealing with sensitive cases of ill health (Lewins 56).
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The field of medicine was facing challenges from religious institutions that had already commanded a majority following among all people in the world. Different interpretations by various theological authorities resulted in emergence of several perspectives in which theological bioethics is viewed.
There are those theologians who considered bioethics as a platform on which to oppose change. Cultural practices that had been in place for centuries, and valued religious principles were being threatened by emerging trends. However, some of the ethicists sought to moderate the issue by considering the beneficial side of bioethics.
These moderate ethicists wanted to use the field of situation ethics to ensure that the practice in science and medicine would be beneficial to the human race without necessarily conforming to religious and cultural principles.8
Contemporary bioethics is classified according to the approach that is used by the relevant disciplines in its development. In academia, scholars have formalised the field into a defined course of study in academic institutions. This is seen as a rather limited approach to the field.9
The academic approach to bioethics is favoured in medicine and healthcare where issues such as controversial surgeries and transplants are the contentious issues. In addition, commencement and termination of human life, a phenomenon that is not yet understood, plays a major role in the academic approach. Some people consider artificial life support to be a subject of scrutiny within the field of bioethics. In other words, academic bioethics is concerned with human health and the concept of life.
The second approach to the field of bioethics is the imperative approach. It concerns governance and regulation in the healthcare setting, and in the political arena. This field seeks to govern the ethical aspect of procedures and decision making in healthcare setting. In this essence, bioethics is used to govern the manner in which professionals in the field of medicine and healthcare conduct their duties, and how they handle their responsibilities. Institutional regulations and the law are major considerations when using this approach.
Situational ethics is critical of religious doctrines adopted by the mainstream Christians. This analytical philosophy places the greatest virtue of the religion in different contexts such that different meanings can be communicated using the same word. Situation ethics challenges the sanctity with which love is regarded in Christendom. The Christian faith maintains that love of a Christian does not change regardless of the parties involved. On the other hand, situation ethics does not completely dispute the existence of love.10 Instead, it breaks the concept of love into other principles that are observed depending on the prevailing conditions. This means that love is greatest when situation ethics is considered in every situation. In other words, situation ethics is a more analytical interpretation of love compared to the rigid doctrines of religion.
Joseph Fletcher, a modern day philosopher, had a radical opinion regarding ethics. He dismissed the moral and ethical codes emphasized by religions such as Christianity. In fact, the development of situation ethics by Fletcher began with the questioning of the Christian doctrine of love.11
He put the word “love” in so many contexts that the real meaning of the word could not be discerned. Consequently, he was able to show that for the word “love” to have a meaning, a situation has to be defined. For example, the word “love” directed towards an object, say a car, does not have the same meaning as when it is directed towards another human being.12 Furthermore, the word love has a completely different meaning when directed towards a deity.
In Fletcher’s theory, every situation has its own method of interpretation depending on the dimensions of the situation. For Fletcher, scientists and biologists had to develop the appropriate method for every situation they encounter. This is situation ethics in Fletcher’s perspective.
Furthermore, Fletcher dismisses the essence of creating a system for dealing with particular situations. In this regard, he postulates that every situation is special and thus a single system cannot be used to evaluate different situations. However, Fletcher points out that a method through which the concerned parties can adapt to the specific situation in question can be established.
Fletcher’s theory is limited to making of decisions with significant moral considerations. That is why he seeks to neutralise religious ethics, particularly Christian ethics. In addition, he observes that people had adopted situation ethics at the height of Roman Catholicism.
To stem the influence of the new realm of ethics, the authorities of the church, which had great influence over governments, outlawed situation ethics in all institutions associated with the Catholic Church. Fletcher alternatively observes that the church did not let the situation ethics evolve without interference for fear of opposition to religious ethics.13
In the context of bioethics, situational ethics allow the scientists and medical personnel to carry out their activities depending on the demands of the situation at a particular moment. If Fletcher’s theory of ethics is applied in the realm of science, bioethics takes the form of situation ethics.
Moral influence of religion and tradition is not of any importance in this kind of reasoning. The method that Fletcher proposes as a tool for adapting and interpreting different situations brings relativity of circumstances into play. Situation ethics as illustrated by Fletcher means that religious and cultural ethics are not valid in the case of critical scientific activities.14 This is primarily due to the rigidity of these morals, which do not allow rational reasoning.
In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul stresses that human beings consist of more than the physical aspect. According to the Roman pontiff, a person is a composite of physical attributes and a spiritual existence. Pope John Paul insisted that there is need for one to make realistic and honest considerations before taking an action. In this essence, the principle of truth is cardinal in his singular perspective of human nature.
The pope sought to distance the church from allegations that the doctrines of the church are based on the physical aspect of humans.15 He compared the insistence that the church was based on the physical aspects of humans to lack of freedom. However, John Paul also pointed out that a human being remains in control of one’s spiritual and physical aspects of existence. This indicates that the pope’s opinion was that being spiritual beings, humans were under the obligation to account for every action.
Furthermore, he insists that there is always a moral aspect of every action. To the church, morality is at the root of ethics in all facets of life. The pope continues to quote Saint Paul, who reflected on the issue of the harmony between spiritual consciousness and physical existence.
Saint Paul says that the physical existence and the soul are tightly bound together such that none can prevail alone in a living human being.16 Without any consideration of logic or existing circumstances, the pope declares that those who do not observe the laws as they are written in the Holy Scripture are doomed. The kingdom of heaven does not belong to them, even though their transgressions are a result of overbearing circumstances.
While quoting from the Holy Scripture in his expressions in Veritatis splendor, the pope castigates those who engage in immoral behaviours. He calls for application of the guidelines of the scripture without critical analysis of the situation of the affected. In addition, citing circumstances and situation as the reasons for engaging in immoral acts is an excuse according to the pope.17
John Paul is in opposition to the view that a human being can be considered as a person and a living body just like other forms of life. Based on morals, the pope seeks to distinguish a person from other forms of living bodies, maintaining that a human being is both spiritual and physical.18
This is a property that other living bodies do not posses. Furthermore, the pope observes that a person remains human even when one is not conscious of existence. On the other hand, the scientific logical view that human beings are those who are aware of their own existence excludes some people, who are not conscious of themselves due to natural physical malformations or underdevelopment, from the human race.
In opposition to this notion, the pope maintains that any living being that arises from the human race is a person subject to all moral considerations in practice of all disciplines. In all expressions by the pope, he seeks to dispute the dual existence of the human being. Psychologists have sought to establish the understanding of the human being as a body with logical physical mechanisms and thoughts, with the capability of harbouring a less understood spiritual existence.
The pope responds by saying that a human being is one, and is responsible for both spiritual and physical undertakings. Whereas the spiritual aspect of the human being cannot be logically established, the physical existence is subject to logic. In his view of existence and reasoning, the pope disputes that the making of decisions depending on the circumstances prevailing for a particular individual.19
Pope John Paul’s teachings emphasize all human actions are a result of choice by the concerned individual. In this essence, he separates decision from the physical events in nature that are presumed to be a result of probability. Human actions are not results of physical or physiological processes in the human body, but they are results of reasoning that involves both body and soul. Thus, everybody is obligated to account for the moral implications of one’s actions.20
Pope Paul validates the natural law of reasoning. He says that reasoning is divine. He supports this by quoting the scripture and describing wisdom as a property, which God has endowed humans, expecting that it will be used for making the appropriate moral choices.21 In addition, Pope John Paul expresses that there is need for people to believe unconditionally in the scripture and its moral lessons. The validity of the scripture itself cannot be questioned.
If the position held by Pope John Paul and that held by Joseph Fletcher are to be compared, it is evident that the two authorities have opposing opinions regarding situation ethics. Pope John Paul emphasises belief in the scripture and its theory of unity between the body and the soul in letter “Veritatis Splendor”. For the pope, reasoning and principles should remain unchanged even with the change of circumstances.22
This view does not consider situation to be a valid reason to modify ethics in the practice of any discipline. Deontology reveals that the scripture is not based on logic, but on faith, which remains unproven. For example, the scripture requires one to believe in existence of the soul and the spiritual part of a human being.
In addition, the pope insists that wisdom, the power of reasoning, is God given, a principle that is not proven.23 However, no authority has successfully disapproved this assumption. The lack of regard for the significance of the circumstances in a situation while making decisions by the pope in “Veritatis Splendor” proves that the pope is opposed to situation ethics.
Considering Joseph Fletcher’s interpretation of love, it is clear that consideration of situation is important in making decisions. Fletcher has questioned the existence of morals in a religious context. He considers cultural and religious morals inadequate for application in practice of any scientific discipline.
When Fletcher opposes Christian doctrines of supremacy of spiritual beliefs, he does not deny that there is a spiritual aspect in the existence of human beings. Moreover, he does not dispute the existence of values such as love. However, he calls for reason while undertaking decisions. He also says that there is need to account for the prevailing situation when making decisions. Thus, it is conclusive that Joseph Fletcher believes in the philosophy situation ethics.
Cahill, Lisa Sowle. Theological bioethics: participation, justice, and change. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005.
Curran, Charles E.. The moral theology of Pope John Paul II. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005.
Fletcher, Joseph F.. Situation ethics: the new morality. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966.
Lewins, Frank W.. Bioethics for health professionals: an introduction and critical approach. South Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia, 1996.
Lonergan, Bernard J. F.. Method in theology. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
Miller, J. Michael. The encyclicals of John Paul II. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996.
Paul, John. The splendour of truth shines: encyclical letter Veritatis splendor. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993.
Pope, Paul, John. Love and responsibility. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.
Shimazono, Susumu, and Shimauchi Hiroe. The future of life and death: contemporary bioethics in Europe and Japan. Tokyo, Japan: Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, the University of Tokyo :, 2007.
Woodfield, Andrew. Teleology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
1 Shimazono & Hiroe. The future of life and death, 96.
2 Ibid., 101.
3 Lonergan, Method in theology, 26.
4 Cahill, Theological bioethics, 15.
5 Woodfield, Teleology, 28.
6 Ibid., 50.
7 Miller, The encyclicals of John Paul II, 112.
8 Lonergan, Method in theology, 81.
10 Fletcher, Situation ethics, 45.
11 Ibid., 39.
12 Ibid., 48.
13 Ibid., 74.
14 Ibid., 70.
15 Miller, The encyclicals of John Paul II, 115.
16 Ibid., 119.
17 Paul, The splendour of truth shines, 37.
18 Ibid., 40.
19 Ibid., 113.
20 Ibid., 117.
21 Curran, The moral theology of Pope John Paul II, 55.
22 Paul, The splendour of truth shines, 128.
23 Pope, Love and responsibility, 134.