Root Metaphor and Bioethics


While a substantial amount of work has been done on the metaphors used in bioethics (such as the body as “property” or the ethics consultant as “engineer”), this essay focuses on the manner in which metaphors reside at the core of various bioethics theories. Drawing upon Stephen Pepper’s (1942) notion that philosophical positions are expressions of specific “root metaphors” (similarity, machine, organism, act), the essay will look at the way theories such as principlism, rule-based ethics, casuistry, and phenomenological ethics are also grounded in particular root metaphors. These root metaphors express fundamentally different notions of the way the world operates, and thus arguments over the superiority of particular moral theories are actually disagreements over worldviews and cannot be resolved through rational discourse. To agree with an alternative theory would entail the adoption of a fundamentally different root metaphor for understanding the way the world works.