restricted access A Theory of International Bioethics: Multiculturalism, Postmodernism, and the Bankruptcy of Fundamentalism
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A Theory of International Bioethics:
Multiculturalism, Postmodernism, and the Bankruptcy of Fundamentalism 1

This first of two articles analyzing the justifiability of international bioethical codes and of cross-cultural moral judgments reviews “moral fundamentalism,” the theory that cross-cultural moral judgments and international bioethical codes are justified by certain “basic” or “fundamental” moral principles that are universally accepted in all cultures and eras. Initially propounded by the judges at the 1947 Nuremberg Tribunal, moral fundamentalism has become the received justification of international bioethics, and of cross-temporal and cross-cultural moral judgments. Yet today we are said to live in a multicultural and postmodern world. This article assesses the challenges that multiculturalism and postmodernism pose to fundamentalism and concludes that these challenges render the position philosophically untenable, thereby undermining the received conception of the foundations of international bioethics. The second article, which follows, offers an alternative model—a model of negotiated moral order—as a viable justification for international bioethics and for transcultural and transtemporal moral judgments.

Man in the Twentieth Century can not be circumscribed by the standards of any single culture.

American Anthropological Association (1948) in a statement officially denouncing the 1948 United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Recently . . . so-called “liberal” medicine has revived the old rights of a clinic understood in terms of a special contract, a tacit pact made between one man and another. This patient gaze has even been attributed the power of assuming [a role in clinical decision making].

Miracles are not so easy to come by . . . .

Michel Foucault (1975, p. 5) [End Page 201]

An Overview of the Analysis

International bioethics originated in the trauma of the Holocaust, specifically, in the 1946–1947 Nuremberg “Doctors Trial” when a tribunal of three American judges convicted Nazi medical researchers of “crimes against humanity.” In justifying their judgment, the Nuremberg Tribunal cited 10 principles for morally permissible research, which, they claimed, were based on “fundamental” principles that civilized societies “all agree” upon and accept as the foundations of their “moral, ethical, and legal” norms. Foremost among the principles was one stating that morally permissible human experiments require the informed voluntary consent of the subject. The Nuremberg judgment soon became associated with the ideal of human rights declared in the 1948 United Nations Charter. These two ideas—fundamental principles of morality and human rights—have been linked in all major formulations of international bioethics promulgated in the past 50 years, including the Council of Europe’s 1997 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with Regard to the Application of Biology and Biomedicine (Council of Europe 1997; Dommel and Alexander 1997). In this paper, I explore the received justification for international bioethics—the idea that it is grounded in fundamental principles accepted in all societies—tracing it from its initial, almost off-hand, promulgation by the Nuremberg Tribunal, through its more thoughtful development by such bioethicists as Ruth Macklin, to its more complex use by the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.

After a brief review of the evolution of the received justification, I discuss the viability of this justification in the face of the critique implicit in two important intellectual movements: multiculturalism and postmodernism. In the international context, multiculturalism asserts the claim that there are no common moral principles shared by all cultures. Postmodernism asserts a similar claim against all universal standards, moral and nonmoral. In the 1990s, bioethicists have attempted to respond to these claims in various ways. These responses are documented, analyzed, and then shown to be “bankrupt,” in the sense that they undercut the most important objective of moral fundamentalism: the justification of transcultural moral judgments, such as the condemnation of the Nazi doctors.

A second article, which follows the present one in the same issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, revisits the contractarian tradition [End Page 202] of Hobbes and Locke, as it has been reinterpreted by David Gauthier (1986), John Rawls (1971, 1993), and Robert Nozick (1974), to develop the idea of negotiated moral order as the basis of international bioethics. When conceptualized as a negotiated moral order, international bioethics can accept the genuine insights...