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  • Bioethics and Ideology
  • Daniel Callahan (bio)

Gilbert and Sullivan said that everyone is born either a little liberal or a little conservative. Is that true? My brother, a Republican who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee in the Virginia House of Delegates, caught the eye of his Democrat parents by keeping a clean desk as a teenager and then joining the Marines. Surely suspicious behavior, predictive of a dissolute conservative life. But then I followed my parents and became a Democrat. He voted for George W. Bush and I, with a galloping case of emotional repugnance, voted against him. Of course, we have the same genes, more or less, and shared the same home environment, more or less. Now my children are all Democrats, and my brother's children all Republicans. What are we to make of such patterns?

I will use this forum to propose that, for those interested in ethical theory, a new category be added to the agenda, to be called ideological theory. Below the surface of debates on, say, utilitarianism versus deontology, lie broader but more inchoate ways of looking at the world and society, influential in the other debates. Arguments about the niceties of the familiar moral theories, conducted in the needlework style of careful, wholly "rational" analysis, serve to mask the lower ideological forces at work, which are usually a jumbled mixture of reason and emotion. That masking is of both a negative and positive kind. It is negative in hiding the real forces at work behind facades of tight rationality, and positive in leading people in directions that are not nearly as rational or tidy as they superficially appear.

Why was it, for instance, that critics of Leon Kass's President's Council on Bioethics attacked its conservative cast as an outrageous imposition of right-wing ideology on what should be a neutral body of rational deliberation—but failed to either note, or mention, that the three previous national commissions originated with Democrat administrations and featured liberal chairmen, liberal directors, liberal staffs, and overwhelmingly liberal members? Or failed to note that, in its deliberations and reports, there was far more internal division and dissent among the President's Council members than marked most of the other commissions? Kass's conservatism was out there on the surface, but its critics masked their underlying ideological bias. That was the negative masking mode.

An example of the positive masking mode can be found in the claim of some conservatives (cited by Ruth Macklin in the lead article in this issue) that reducing deep moral sentiments like repugnance to rational argument serves to diminish that repugnance. It is hard not to suspect that this is a way of protecting some moral sentiments (such as repugnance to reproductive cloning) from careful analysis and appraisal. There is no historical evidence to support such a notion, and some circularity in even trying to defend it. Is that a rational argument or itself a moral sentiment that should not be reduced to one? One has to suspect that it is deployed to advance some moral sentiments at the expense of others or to give some a privileged place, subject to different rules of evaluation.

A truly rich arena for ideological theory would be to try to understand herd or pack behavior. Why is it, for example, that most opponents of embryonic stem cell research also support the war in Iraq? Or that opponents of the war are likely to support that research, although so far as I can see there is no logical connection between those two issues at all? What is it about universities that appears to stimulate pack behavior in a liberal direction, while religion in evangelical parts of the country stimulates it in a conservative direction (yet religion in the northeast stimulates it in a liberal direction)? It seems to me, as a general proposition, that bioethics should not follow the lines of political parties, but too often it seems to do so.

Now much of what I say here is of course the natural fare for social science inquiry (and some social scientists are doing just that), but it should no less be the fare of...


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