Beware of twisted ideas of freedom

Bioethics is often seen as a science which set obstacles up before the free self-determination of human beings. What is the correct relationship between bioethics and human freedom, including man’s free search for happiness? Do you think that bioethics themes (abortion, euthanasia and so on) concern only personal consciousness or all of society?

Bioethics is a branch of ethics and therefore its limitations on human freedom are moral limitations—not to be confused with law, custom or social convention. Bioethics thus is not a new discipline but a new application of the very ancient discipline of ethics to that segment of human acts associated with the use of biotechnology in human affairs or more generally in the biosphere.

To speak, therefore, as your question implies, of “bioethics” “putting obstacles to the free determination of human beings” is to misplace the source of those “obstacles.” The “obstacles,” so-called, derive from the fact that bioethics deals—as any system of ethics must—with right and wrong, good and evil in human conduct. Ethics without constraints on human freedom would not be ethics at all. It would simply be license, i.e. giving sanction to whatever it is our will to do. This is moral delinquency. It leads only to the pursuit of a technological heaven free of disease, death or unfettered license.

The moral philosophy on which bioethics is grounded will determine the nature, degrees of flexibility and accountability of the moral constraints bioethics imposes. These limitations can be derived from a variety of moral theories—virtue theory, deontology, consequentialism, situationism and others. The limitations on “freedom” which concern you are limitations on harm to other human persons by the unrestrained pursuit of personal freedom. Bioethics therefore was not conceived to limit freedom, but to determine whether there should be limits, why and how things are to be determined.

In 1947, as you know, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights declared the dignity of the human person as its first principle.

In 2005 the UNESCO International Committee on Bioethics declared human dignity the first principle of bioethics. These two declarations suggest that even in today’s secular society acknowledgement of the inherent dignity of the human person remains the grounding for our obligations and duties to our fellow humans. Rather than being “obstacles” to human freedom, ethical norms are endeavors to balance the good of research and technology with the good of humans as humans. Ethics in general and bioethics in particular are therefore protections of freedom. Ethics in general and bioethics in particular are therefore not “obstacles” but guides to the right use of biotechnology.

The extension of your question to include the relationship between bioethics and human freedom has behind it the question of human enhancement. Again, constraints are not imposed by “bioethics” but by the ethical issues that arise when we use modern biotechnology to go beyond therapy. Whether this is a move toward “happiness” or an endless pursuit for some distorted notion of happiness is open to question. It deserves critical and orderly inquiry.

The President’s Council on Bioethics has addressed the question as one of private and public ethical concern. The question does not exist because bioethics provides an obstacle to happiness. Rather it exists because we do not know whether enhancements foster happiness.

Enhancements which correct bodily disfigurements, improve functional capacity or foster equality of opportunity would seem to merit ethical approval. Those that are intended to gain unfair advantages, that disadvantage the poor, or nourish the fantasy of a super-species of human are ethically faulty. Answers to these questions go well beyond the naïve opposition of bioethics to the pursuit of happiness.

The same applies to another question implied in your query, namely, are there some things or experiments that ought never be done? To restrict experimentation on ethical grounds is not “anti-science,” but [anti]-scientism. The power of biotechnology being what it is the constraints of ethics are necessary if humanity is not to be overwhelmed by its own ingenuity.

As to your last question, it is already apparent that bioethical questions concern the whole of society. Indeed, today they concern global society. National boundaries are porous to both ethics and technology. Now, and increasingly in the future, we will witness engagement by the whole world with the kinds of questions you have raised. In the future we will need more and more attention to the ethics as well as the biology in bioethics. If a proper relationship between those two elements is not struck, both science and ethics will suffer. We will become prisoners by one side or the other in a needless war of supremacy between technology and ethics.
Edmund Pellegrino is the Chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics The opinions expressed here are those of the author.They do not represent the opinions of the President’s Council on Bioethics. This article was originally published in


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.