The Council practiced a distinctive version of ethical inquiry, which was self titled as richer bioethics. This can be seen as a reaction against what Kass and others (including some Council members) perceived to be a reigning form of orthodox or mainstream bioethics. Though it is too simplistic in reality to draw bright lines between these forms of bioethics, some distinctions will serve as useful heuristics.
Mainstream bioethics stems from the human rights tradition and takes its primary form as the principles guiding ethical conduct of research involving human subjects. “Principlism,” as this form of bioethics is sometimes known as, articulates four ethical principles to guide thought and action in bioethical dilemmas. They are: autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. These principles form the substance of mainstream bioethics. As a social practice, this form of bioethics tends to be procedural (concerned mainly with establishing rules to ensure the principles are met) and deductive (the answer to ethical problems is deduced by the application of principles to specific cases).
The Council’s richer bioethics does not share the same Kantian, humanitarian roots as mainstream bioethics. Rather, it draws from a diverse range of thought, including the ancients and religious traditions. Though varied, these roots of richer bioethics raise two fundamental points largely absent in mainstream forms. First, they speak to limits on the proper human reach of technological powers. Second, and related, they involve gaining some knowledge of the natural human form or idea (eidos or imago Dei ), which helps guide one toward a virtuous and good life through the perfection of that form.
Though is not a well-defined theory of ethics, three crucial attributes distinguish richer bioethics from more mainstream forms. First as a metaphysics (or anthropology), it is grounded in the fundamental claim that bioethics must proceed from some understanding of what it is to be human, which informs derivative ethical insights about what it means to live well. Second as an epistemology, it is holistic and diverse in its inclusion of largely marginalized resources such as fiction and religious texts. It sought to replace the predominant proceduralism and emphasis on individual autonomy with a more substantive conversation about ultimate purposes and a greater emphasis on community and character. Third as a social practice, it sought to expand bioethical conversation beyond the confines of disciplinary bioethics expertise.
My research on the Council further explores the origins and implications of the Council’s richer bioethics. Presented below are some foundational texts in bioethics and some other resources that are particularly helpful for understanding the field in general and the Council specifically. Below these print resources, I list some important web-based bioethics resources.
Bioethics Resources (print)
Bioethics Resources (web)