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Bioethics—The Basics by Alastair V. Campbell (review)

From: Asian Bioethics Review
Volume 6, Issue 2, June 2014
pp. 197-200 | 10.1353/asb.2014.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“A book that speaks directly to non-experts in the field”

Teaching bioethics in India without having formal qualification in the subject made me to do lots of self-learning in last two decades. After going through many volumes of philosophy and increasing number of papers published in bioethics journals, I continued to crave for something that was easy to read, understand and above all make my students understand and apply in their daily work in the field of healthcare. I must say that with this slim pocketbook by one of the foremost exponent of bioethics, Prof. Campbell, my search for something that I can recommend to my students has ended.

Prof. Campbell in the Preface of the book says:

Writing a book about ‘the basic’ of your discipline is both challenging and refreshing. The challenge is to describe the complexities of the subject in an accessible style, yet without distorting or simplifying the issues. . . . To be able to write without constant referencing and without forever worrying about the kind of nit-picking criticisms which academic reviewers are likely to offer gives a feeling of freedom to write more spontaneously and informally. This is meant to be book that speaks directly to non-experts in the field, especially to those who are facing the kind of ethical problems I describe.

He has indeed succeeded in doing it. Twice I read it in a long sitting of a few hours each, and I found it refreshingly easy to read and learn. Simplicity of his writing and lucidity of storytelling keeps one hooked to it, and at the same time one keeps serious imbibing theoretical and practical issues in bioethics. Only somebody with real mastery over the subject could have pulled off such a feat. More so because in the process Prof. Campbell has made immense efforts in ensuring that almost everything important in bioethics in relation to healthcare is packed in 188 pages.

The book is divided in to six sections. The first three in 78 pages cover the classical exposition of the history, philosophy, theories and approaches to bioethics; the latter three sections go into details of their applications to the healthcare practices, research and challenges in health systems and public health. Assimilation of the first three sections is the key to get under the skin of bioethics as the application of bioethics to even topics and challenges not covered in the book becomes easier.

The opening chapter, aptly titled “What is Bioethics?” provides a concise definition, issues involved, the history and methods of bioethics. While medical ethics with its codes for the conduct of physicians have ancient history, bioethics as a discipline emerges only from the experiences of atrocities, conduct of doctors and human rights violations during the Second World War; and the post-War development of medical science that created conflict with old values and religion. Bioethics means “ethics of life” and the book restricts its meaning to those areas of life in which medicine and biomedical sciences can affect human well-being. The relationship between bioethics and law is explained as the latter “defining limits to the permissible action of doctors and others” as well as the utility of the elaborate case laws in defining ethical principles and their applications. The methods used in bioethics are descriptive, or those which provide facts related to moral issues and social science methods which also provide factors that influence them, and thus explain what things are. Though indispensible to understand the issues, they are not sufficient as bioethics also demands reflection on not just what things are but also what they ought to be. Thus, the main method of bioethics is rightly concerned with the justification of moral views.

Prof. Campbell is at his best in the second section on the “Moral Theories”. Here, in order to explain a variety of moral theories, he uses a well-known case scenario called “the Mayor’s Dilemma”, where a mayor is ordered by the occupational army to beat to death two resistance fighters and failure to do so would result in the killing of 80 hostages. Five major moral theories, including the strengths and weaknesses of each, are explained and applied to...



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