Unit 10: Conservative Bioethics

The two articles in discussion for today observe the burgeoning sociopolitical divide in bioethical discourse. In Ruth Macklin’s article ” The New Conservatives in Bioethics” we denote her disfavor in the new divisions and labels in American bioethics which she finds limiting, misleading, and distracting. Macklin describes “Conservative Bioethics” as one in which opposes all ” biotechnology and its use in all sorts of interventions they term “artificial”: artificial reproduction, artificial life extension, artificial intelligence, and artificial life, and, in general, making ourselves “artificially better.” (Macklin, 34-43) She first argues that traditionally the intersection of bioethics and public policy is frowned upon as it limits the original goal of critiques of new and existing medical dilemmas. This new labeling also, intentionally or unintentionally, confines all viewpoints in opposition to “conservative” as “liberal” which is harmful as the viewpoint are and always have been diverse in their positioning. Macklin further degrades the notions of “Conservative Bioethics” by claiming confusion in the definition. She reiterates that Robert Veatch who said, “we are trying to outgrow the simplistic ethical notion that if something has been artificially processed it is intrinsically evil.”(Macklin, 34-43) would be the standard view for the generation he lived in. While opposing views that sought herbalist foundations were seen as fringe. This is the antithesis to what modern conservative bioethics rhetoric states today. Lastly, and most importantly she surmises that the political climate has emboldened bioethicists with evangelical ideas to mimic the conservative persuasive style and rhetoric in an effort to gain support and cultural leverage. Macklin states that their style of argument lacks true logical deduction and leans on pathos.

Macklin raises great concerns. There is a notion that the field of bioethics is being degraded by some who are using not only politics but political rhetoric and grandstanding to gain an advantage in promoting their ideals. This is particularly true of pro-life and anti-IVF individuals. The use of emotionally manipulative arguments are not for the persuasion of other scholars, but for people whom are less knowledgeable on bioethical subjects. This is very much purposefully misleading and manipulative. However, Macklin’s tone throughout the article gives concern to her ability to discern the true issues. Although the “Conservative Bioethics” gimmick is in itself unethical it is a reaction to the poor ethics of politics as a whole and a testament to how politics and positions have more of an effect on ethics than ethics has an effect on politics. The intertwining of politics and bioethics is one that should be encouraged, however, one would hope bioethics would be the non-partisan, logic-based entity to advise and shape law. Unfortunately, that is unrealistic as many institutions in our society made to be judiciously unbiased have in actuality political engines. One can use the United States Supreme Court, for example, an entity made to be nonpartisan but is actually a political lever for social reform and persuasion. Macklin has to accept the fact that bioethics is corrupted and some of her colleagues are, for lack of a better term, playing dirty. However, this should be expected in a society where it is rewarded. Macklin’s viewpoint can also be subjected to pathos arguments to help persuade lawmakers and citizens but she would have to admit she’s part of the problem and is unethical herself, or she can continue to make logical arguments rooted in dated bioethics ideals and risk citizens losing rights she feels are ethically sound. Her inability to not change arguments could also eventually be unethical.

The second article by Katherine Braun discusses the bioethic divide in Germany. Braun emphasizes that German discourse is centered on risk aversion or lack thereof. In Germany, the Bioethical divide is centered on techno-optimistic camp and a techno-skeptical ideal. Techno-Optimists “emphasize technology’s potential benefits, welcome the enhancement of choice, and believe that society is able, in principle, to calculate and to control potential risks” (Braun 42-49); while Techno-skeptical “underscore the limits of technological solutions and the price that individuals and society might have to pay for them.” (Braun 42-49). These views are a cultural and religious intertwining with German society. Germany’s Nazi history of eugenics as well as common Christian ideals shape the basis of Techno-skeptical views and the dangers of not just technology but increased autonomy. Techo-optimists, similarly to American mainstream bioethics, is centered around choice. Braun emphasizes the positives of the German bioethical system as it is not partisan and makes sure to “ balance risks and benefits and examine and correct the existing discourse.” (Braun 42-49).

German society may be seemingly less partisan than American society concerning bioethics. However, Braun does not address the negatives of German discourse as it juxtaposes the risk aversion and forces standardization of what is a benefit that many would agree cannot be done. Unlike American bioethics, German bioethics ignores differences in perceptions of what is beneficial and replaces it with discourse concerning the process of coming to a decision and not the decision itself. There is a danger in assuming the process of coming to a decision will always lead to the right decision. In my opinion, the issues in the binary system in both German and American Bioethics, will always eventually lead to political juxtaposition. The true crux of the issue is, does the basis of political structure support ethical degradation to win an ideological argument? Will Germany eventually look like America?


  1. Hey Moise. This is a really in-depth post, and you pull good evidence from the texts. I think the questions you pose at the end of your post are striking, especially in reference to America’s history with Germany in the past century (I’m a history major; I felt compelled to bring it up). Germany’s ignoring of ethics behind the decision in favor of, as you say, discourse concerning the process of coming to a decision is probably employed to ensure efficiency. I think, especially considering Germany’s Nazi and eugenics history, that it is dangerous to ignore analysis the decision itself.

    I also agree with you that the binary system will “lead to political juxtaposition.” So, in a way, Germany and America already look alike. Partisan political agendas will always be evident if they exist, and although Germany’s is hidden behind a facade of bipartisanship, it is inherently partisan due to the binary nature of the arguments. Competitions have opposing sides that fight for power, control, and influence. Politics in these countries are a competition. They shouldn’t be, but they are.

  2. Hello Moise!
    I think you did a great job of navigating the complicated intersection of politics and bioethics, and I especially loved hearing your opinions and in-depth questions on the readings.

    Regarding Braun, I found myself noticing a lot of the same shortcomings in the readings that you did. For me, I believe that hearing an academic challenge their own arguments makes their voice more credible, so I immediately thought of the possible negatives of the German bioethics discourse that Braun is praising. To respond to your final question, I believe that, especially given the political division now (which I believe is significantly worse than when the article was written), even the use of “techno” labeling will eventually fall into conservative and liberal terms. If we look at the use of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in regards to abortion, although these terms are both framed in a positive, non-political manner, they become sensitive in a political context. Thus, I think that any use of binary labeling in regards to bioethics will become politically charged as a result of the divisive political system that is underlying bioethics as a whole. I agree with you in that while the ideal is that bioethics forms politics, yet political agendas undermine bioethics. I’m not quite sure where one would begin to fix these issues, whether that is through a reframing of bioethics, or of an entire political system. Clearly, this is a complex issue, as experts and academics have not been able to find a solution.

    As for the Macklin article, we began discussing this matter in class, on the liberal belief that experts should be determining bioethics in contrast with conservative practices of using public voices to determine matters. While I initially believed that I fell entirely on the liberal perspective of only experts determining these issues, after reading the Kass report for the last class, I see the value in incorporating both the liberal and conservative aspect. Rather than entirely using biotechnology experts to determine these matters, incorporating experts in other disciplines (philosophy, ethics, law, etc), seems to provide more a logical, unbiased (at least less than scientists) perspective that could reason the human point of view.

  3. This is a great summary of the articles, I appreciate your critical analysis! Macklin’s article stood out to me because I think it’s difficult to deem bioethics as an unbiased field. So many different situations warrant emotional responses and as mentioned in earlier discussions regarding it as a way to promote secular viewpoints are unreasonable since there are philosophical, cultural, and religious influences that play a heavy role in decision making processes. Bioethics can’t be objective or neutral since lived experiences vary among individuals, whether in the same community or not and as a result are guided by moral and ethical values that will differ just the same. I agree that there are benefits to intertwining politics and bioethics but wonder how power structures may play a role in controlling the narrative of policy making to use their positions to further their own agenda? Since there’s no way to rid oneself of judgements and preconceived notions, I would be concerned that the barriers and limited access to different political spheres will substantially hinder communities that aren’t well represented in government or leadership spaces generally. Who might advocate for those without a voice or seat at the table and how may they determine their needs in order to best address them? The use of labels may be an issue to Macklin, but she definitely should consider the implications of the distinctions and how they play a role to affect the livelihoods of those who engage in advancements within reproductive health.

  4. Hi Moise!

    You brought up a really interesting point regarding the techno-optimists and techno-skeptics in Germany, that techno-optimists are not always in favor of new technology, and techno-skeptics are not always against the development of new technology. Furthermore, the optimists and skeptics span out on a wide spectrum of differing political and religious beliefs. This observation supports the fact that the field of bioethics is very nuanced and it is difficult to put defined labels on subjects, unlike what Macklin is trying to do in her article–placing generalized labels on bioethicists.

    Like you mentioned, there are negatives to the techno-centered way Germans tackle bioethical problems like failing to take into account of varying social interests and consequences. Still, I appreciate the fact that the republican discourse allows more voices to be heard in the decision making process, and as Braun states, it can be improved if we pay more attention to the social issues it raises. As for your last question, I wonder if Germany will look like America, or if it will be the other way around. I think (I could be wrong) that America is becoming increasingly secular, which makes it possible that the American debate will become more techno/science-centered and more ‘rational’. I wonder, then, if we will become too focused on the potential benefits of new technologies like the German techno-optimists and pay less attention to the social issues these technologies may cause.

  5. Moise, I appreciate your critical analysis of the articles. The part that I related to the most was in your second paragraph when you said, in reference to pro-life and anti-IVF individuals, “The use of emotionally manipulative arguments are not for the persuasion of other scholars, but for people whom are less knowledgeable on bioethical subjects. This is very much purposefully misleading and manipulative.” Almost everyone knows, or has come across, someone who uses these techniques as a means of persuasion.

    Unfortunately we most likely all do this, even Macklin’s viewpoint, as you said, can “also be subjected to pathos arguments to help persuade lawmakers.” The reality of America’s political system is that it is made up of humans that are influenced by pathos arguments over unbiased scientific ones (that is assuming we could even reach truly unbiased arguments), thus perpetuating what Macklin fears: the degradation of bioethics via emotionally driven political rhetoric. But is this avoidable in our bipartisan government, or further, in our society?

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