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The Mettle of Moral Fundamentalism: A Reply to Robert Baker
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The Mettle of Moral Fundamentalism:
A Reply to Robert Baker*

This article is a reply to Robert Baker’s attempt to rebut moral fundamentalism, while grounding international bioethics in a form of contractarianism. Baker is mistaken in several of his interpretations of the alleged moral fundamentalism and findings of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. He also misunderstands moral fundamentalism generally and wrongly categorizes it as morally bankrupt. His negotiated contract model is, in the final analysis, itself a form of the moral fundamentalism he declares bankrupt.

Robert baker’s imaginative and incisive articles on international bioethics (Baker 1998a & b) are rich in history and philosophy, but they are as profoundly misguided as they are misdirected. In this comment, I will concentrate both on a pivotal interpretation and criticism that he offers of the Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE 1996) and on his philosophical thesis that a moral fundamentalism of principles and rights is bankrupt. Baker seriously misinterprets the ACHRE report, distorts and fails to refute moral fundamentalism, and ultimately embraces a form of the very fundamentalism that he declares bankrupt. These three topics are connected in that Baker’s misconceptions of the ACHRE report launch his critique of moral fundamentalism and his mistaken understanding of moral fundamentalism drives his critique of the ACHRE report. 1 [End Page 389]

Some Misunderstandings of the Human Radiation Committee

Baker proclaims a conflict between ACHRE’s moral fundamentalism and multiculturalism. He presents this conflict as primarily a factual issue regarding whether different cultures and eras accept different moral principles—“the difference claim,” in his vernacular (Baker 1998a, pp. 208–9). This interpretation eventuates in a critique of the work of both ACHRE and Ruth Macklin:

[W]hen Macklin and the Radiation Committee consider the challenge of multiculturalism, they construe this challenge, not as dispute about anthropological fact, but as a dispute about philosophical theory. More specifically, they treat any assertion of the difference claim as a form of “ethical relativism.” . . . They thus respond to the multiculturalist’s factual observations—even to factual observations by anthropologists—as if they were philosophical analyses.

(Baker 1998a, p. 209)

Baker thinks that a factual question has been fallaciously transformed into a philosophical one. However, this false dilemma is a figment of his fancy. He provides no citation to ACHRE to show that it holds this view, and for an understandable reason: This position is neither stated nor presumed in the Report. ACHRE is quite clear that relativism involves both an anthropological (I would prefer to say historical) dispute about fact and a philosophical dispute about value—and that they are not the same.

The Committee and its staff proceeded as follows: They first collected a large body of historical documents and facts about the practices, policies, and values that prevailed during the period they were studying. Chapters 1 through 3 and 5 through 13, 12 of the Report’s 18 chapters, display the results of this empirical work. The Committee concluded, on this basis, that research investigators and government officials were aware of the obligations generated by universal principles. The ACHRE report specifically lists six “basic” moral principles and maintains that these principles were pervasively recognized at the time of the radiation experiments (ACHRE 1996, pp. 114ff, 124). ACHRE received testimony, conducted interviews, and compiled documents that indicated how deeply these principles were woven into the fabric of American culture at the time, so deeply that no responsible research investigator could have been unaware of them. ACHRE did not move beyond its list of six principles to a broader thesis about the (factual) universality of other principles and did not examine other cultures or periods of history; such work would [End Page 390] have exceeded ACHRE’s mandate and would have done more to obscure than to further its arguments.

ACHRE also found that some government officials had attempted to hide their wrongdoing—a clear indication that these officials were aware of the relevant moral principles and knew that they should not have been treating persons as they did (ACHRE 1996, pp. 152–53; Chapman 1946). These factual findings were not armchair philosophy or empirical guesswork...