Irreligious Bioethics

There’s a fascinating article in the December issue of the American Journal of Bioethics entitled, “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics,” available free here. In the article, philosopher Timothy Murphy argues that the stance of bioethics towards religion should be not just neutral, but actively skeptical, even adversarial. The gold standard for bioethics should be secular moral reasoning, by which he means reasoning “based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from the belief in God or in a future state.” (footnote 2, p. 4) Such an approach, he avers, will “have a particular benefit in tamping down ideological effects.” (p. 6) He also asserts that irreligious bioethics can expose “indefensible approaches and standards” in bioethics, and provides as an example the “conceptually confused and epistemologically uncertain” notion of intercessory prayer. He concludes that “the most valuable approach to religion is to repudiate in all its manifestations the idea that there is a transcendent reality to which the immanent world is beholden.” (p. 8)

A few points: Murphy appears not to understand the nature and purpose of intercessory prayer, making the portion of his article dealing with prayer quite muddled. And secularity is certainly no defense against the excesses of ideology, as the history of the twentieth century with its almost countless victims of secular ideologies shows us. But more fundamentally, Murphy appears to believe that the secular approach to bioethics will somehow be more objective and normative, less tainted by subjective presuppositions, than bioethics practiced from a religious worldview. However, a secular or skeptical methodology is as fraught with unproven premises as any other, religious or otherwise. Even Murphy’s definition of secularity relies upon unproven assumptions and judgments of value to make any sense: for instance, in his phrase, “the well-being of mankind,” how do we define what well-being is? That definition will ultimately rest on a basic assumption that must be accepted without proof (see C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man for an explanation of why this is true). Or, Who does “mankind” include? Are embryos included? One’s answer to that question will be based at least in part on preconceptions that will likely be assumed, not proven.

Murphy writes, “for bioethics the limiting factor is that religions ultimately rely on assumptions and claims that evade secular evaluation because they are typically unfalsifiable, infinitely mutable in the face of objections, rooted in personal experiences that defy independent analysis, or rooted in the murk of human history.” (p. 8)  I do not agree that this statement is entirely true; but to the extent that it is, this same description could be used for the assumptions and claims supporting any underlying worldview, even the secular and skeptical one that Murphy advocates.

(Along with the article is free access to several open peer commentaries from the same journal. I have not had the chance to read through all of them yet, so I apologize if what I wrote her inadvertently echoed some of their points.)

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