Liberal Politics and the Failure of “Neutrality”

In America, liberal political philosophy has been the dominant political influence in almost every arena of public life including bioethics.  Liberal politics promotes the principle of “neutrality,” the notion that, in pluralistic societies (i.e., societies where there is widespread and deep disagreement about basic questions of morality), laws and policies should not support any particular vision of what is good.  This minimalist view of morality limits or dismisses any appeal to specific religions justification when making bioethical decisions.  Consequently, the suggestion of grounding ethical reflection on a particular belief system is deemed a bad idea because it favors one particular moral perspective over other perspectives.  The main concern of politically liberal society is to ensure social cooperation between diverse members of a society.

This creates an inevitable demarcation between public policies and private convictions.  Thus, anyone with religious convictions must maintain those principles in his or her own private sphere; public expressions of private beliefs are not welcome in the liberal society.  Unfortunately, liberal political philosophy’s principle of neutrality does not provide a way to settle ethical questions.  On the one hand, there is a crying need for moral direction; on the other hand, moral guidance from a religious perspective isn’t welcome.  Accordingly, we have medical questions that require resolution but, by reason of political liberalism’s support of neutrality, there is no particular point of view that can become the standard in bioethical matters.  The negative consequence of neutrality is an inevitable deadlock; medical ethical decisions have to be made but our laws and policies lack any defining understanding of what is good.  Yet in order for a society to function, it must devise some means to achieve a common ground.  It is thus a question as to how a pluralistic and polarized society should proceed in the absence of a moral consensus.

I honestly see no workable solutions to this predicament.  How do you think things will unfold in the coming years?

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Steve Phillips
10 years ago

I think the answer is in a better understanding of common morality, those moral concepts that are the foundation of moral thoughts across cultures and across time. From a Christian perspective common morality is a part of God’s general revelation. It exists across cultures and across time because God built it into the nature of human beings. It is not as specific as scriptural revelation, but it is consistent with it and accessible to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Gary Elkins
Gary Elkins
10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Phillips

Steve, I agree that there are common moral concepts. But the problem is with the interpretation and application of those concepts. Individuals view bioethical issues through the lens of conflicting belief systems. For example, both sides in the human embryonic stem cell debate affirm the moral concept of ‘justice’ – but disagree about whether it is more just to permit hESC research or ban it. Consequently, I am not very optimistic that there are any favorable solutions to the current disagreements we have in the field of bioethics.

Erik Clary
10 years ago

Gary, I am reminded in reading your post of Gilbert Meilaender’s 2005 essay “Against Consensus: Christians and Public Bioethics.” In this essay, Meilaender addresses the temptation to reduce public policy discourse to a search for consensus (“lowest‐common‐denominator policy recommendations”). More appropriate and valuable, he
contends, is for differing viewpoints to be heard and considered. Christians involved in bioethical discourse
should, he claims, “speak normatively on behalf of the church” rather than “genuflect in the presence of Rawls” by
appealing “only to publicly accessible reasons.”

This summer’s CBHD conference will be addressing the “scandal” of the diminished theological voice in public bioethics. Hopefully, the issues you raise will be seriously discussed in that forum. I, myself, will be presenting a paper dealing with the question of Christian facilitation of secular bioethics.

Gary Elkins
Gary Elkins
10 years ago
Reply to  Erik Clary

Still, although I agree that Christians should have a place at the table, I’m just not very optimistic about the outcome. Perhaps the best we can hope for is incremental changes. For example, apparently abortion services has suffered several setbacks in recent years. But I suppose it’s always going to be an uphill battle.

I wish I could join you at the conference, Erik. It should be interesting.