By Mark McQuain
In the December issue of The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, editor Dr. Mark Cherry invited reviews of the late Professor H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.’s book After God: Morality & Bioethics in a Secular Age. Dr. Engelhardt passed away this past summer and was the co-founding editor of the Journal. The emphasis of this recent edition was to review the themes of After God and offer emphasis as well as counter arguments to these themes. The above link offers some free access to several articles though most require subscription or individual purchase.
I became familiar with Dr. Engelhardt’s theses on the weaknesses and limitations of secular bioethics during my coursework at Trinity by reading his book “Foundations of Bioethics” and hearing one of his guest lectures. One argument against a transcendental basis for morality or bioethics was that not everyone acknowledged a particular transcendental source. Wouldn’t pure logic and rational argument be a better method for grounding our bioethics? Couldn’t we simply develop a universal secular bioethics that everyone would rationally agree with? Engelhardt’s answer was simply – No. In Foundations of Bioethics he said: “The more a moral vision, moral understanding, thin theory of the good, account of right conduct, etc., has content, the more it presupposes particular moral premises, rules of evidence, rules of inference, etc. The more it gains content, the more it will appear parochial and partisan to one among numerous particular moral understandings. Universality is purchased at the price of content. Content is purchased at the price of universality.(p 67)” In other words, “to resolve moral controversies by sound rational argument, one must [already] share fundamental moral premises, rules of moral evidence, and rules of moral inference and/or of who is in moral authority to resolve moral controversies.(p 40)”
In After God, Dr. Cherry argues that Dr. Engelhardt carries his previous theses to their logical conclusions within our present culture “which shuns any transcendent point of orientation, such as an appeal to God or to a God’s eye perspective on reality.” Per Cherry:
“Without reference to God to guarantee that the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious suffer, there is no reason to believe that rationality requires one to be moral, much less why it would be prudent to act in accordance with morality. We are confronted with foundational concerns regarding sexuality, reproduction, suffering, and death, but without any particular guidance regarding how properly to engage and confront such challenges. Instead of content-full moral answers to guide bioethics and healthcare policy, we are left with a diverse set of lifestyles and death-styles among which to choose with no definitive reasons for preferring any particular choice of one over another. If the universe originated out of nothing, and is going nowhere, for no particular reason, then everything is ultimately absurd. Such, Engelhardt argues, are the epistemic and moral implications of a culture that seeks to be fully after God.”
It strikes me as somewhat ironic that this issue of the Journal comes out during the advent season, a time when Christians celebrate the incarnation of God on earth, necessarily asking us to consider how our present culture views its secular bioethics “after the death of God”.