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  • The Prepositions of Bioethics
  • Raymond De Vries

Prepositions are small words. But as anyone who has tried to learn another language will tell you, they are incredibly important. Having learned Dutch as an adult, I know the embarrassment of the misused preposition, like the day I explained to a colleague that I came “op de trein”—on the train. Oh really? How was it up there? Windy? In Dutch, you come “met de trein”—with the train.

As their name implies, these little words pre-position the nouns and verbs they modify. Where is the book? It is on the table. As a sociologist, I have found prepositions useful to explain how sociology fits with the disciplines that comprise the field of bioethics. There is a world of difference between a sociology in bioethics (where sociologists help bioethicists answer bioethical questions) and a sociology of bioethics (where sociologists use bioethics to answer sociological questions).

Prepositions also play an important—and unrecognized—role in the way bioethicists define themselves. Consider the various ways those who do bioethics name their organizations and products. We have the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, the President’s Council on Bioethics, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the International Association of Bioethics, a plethora of centers for bioethics, and the American Journal of Bioethics. The choice of preposition reflects a certain disagreement—or perhaps confusion—among bioethicists about their place in medicine and science.

“Of” is the strongest preposition, implying, especially when paired with “center,” that bioethicists own bioethics. Need bioethics? Come on over! We got ’em. “Of” says, “We bioethicists have bioethical knowledge, and when making a moral judgment, you would do well to come to us.” This model of bioethics is generally dismissed today—there are far fewer “centers of bioethics” than “centers for bioethics.” “Centers of” justifies “beeper bioethics,” where bioethicists roam medical centers and render their opinions.

Less strong than “of,” “for” casts bioethicists as advocates for informed bioethical reflection. They are not interested in making moral judgments themselves; they are consultants, educators, and guides. Being “for” bioethics leads naturally to bureaucratic solutions for bioethical problems. Lacking the “of” camp’s chutzpa, advocates for bioethics develop guidelines, procedures, and organizational structures intended to forestall or respond to moral problems. The wide use of “for” suggests this model fits most comfortably in medical and research institutions, but what does the need for ethics advocates say about the caregivers and scientists we work with?

“On” is less frequently used (the primary example is the current President’s Council on Bioethics) and is a threat to the profession of bioethics. To simply deliberate on ethical problems implies no special expertise, no desire to quarantine bioethical issues, no unique advocacy role for bioethicists. I believe that it is this preposition—and not just the political orientation of the PCB—that causes many bioethicists to recoil at the President’s Council. The PCB is a model of bioethics without professional bioethicists. It is peopled by educated folks—most of whom are not identified (by themselves or others) as bioethicists—applying themselves to bioethical problems.

One way to avoid the prepositional problem is to use bioethics as an adjective: We are not a center (or a journal, or a council) “of,” “for,” or “on” bioethics, we are simply a “Bioethics Center.” Grammarians will recognize this as a semantic ploy that makes ambiguous the position of the modified noun. Transmographying bioethics from a noun into an adjective simply hides the preposition. A “Bioethics Center” can be a center “for” or “of” bioethics

Some may find all this to be nothing but Will Shortz-like word play, but the choice of preposition tells much about the state of bioethics, its self-image, and its aspirations. Naming an object necessarily constrains our understanding of what that object is and how it may be used. Reflecting on the prepositions of bioethics informs our understanding of the profession and the nature of its work. Did you come with the train or on the train? Do you belong to a center of, or a center for bioethics? Mastering the prepositions of bioethics will make us aware of how we pre-position ourselves. [End Page...


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Print ISSN
p. c3
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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