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  • Western and Eastern Principles and Globalised Bioethics
  • Heather Widdows (bio)

The title of the original symposium from which this paper is derived, "Western or Eastern Principles in a Globalised Bioethics?", makes a number of assumptions. First, it suggests that there are recognisable "Western" and "Eastern" principles of bioethics which can be easily identified; second, it suggests that these principles are different and separate from each other; third, it suggests that whether or not a global bioethics exists depends on the way such principles can or cannot be connected.

This article will reject these assumptions as false. It argues that in fact there are not easily identifiable "Eastern" and "Western" principles of ethics which are mutually exclusive, nor are there ways of living based on these principles — which are fundamentally different from each other — which characterise lives in the "West" and the "East", respectively. It argues that to present "Western" and "Eastern" principles as fundamentally different not only misrepresents the various traditions of ethics which can be drawn upon, but it is also dangerous, in that it divides the world into what are effectively two types of persons, as if we were not all human beings. In addition, it wrongly places the emphasis of the debate in the abstract realm of whether principles are compatible rather than in the realm of practice, where global bioethics is actually developing and becoming a reality. The article argues that to focus on the theoretical debate is also dangerous as it allows the practice of global bioethics to develop without robust critique and analysis. To permit this makes it more likely that the global bioethics which emerges is not representative of either East or West. Therefore, what we should do is to shift the debate away from questions about whether bioethics is possible in terms of combining principles and instead focus directly on practically shaping the emerging global bioethics. [End Page 14]

Eastern and/or Western Principles

The first issue which will be explored is the nature of Eastern and Western principles of bioethics and the assumption that there are easily identifiable and distinguishable sets of "Western" and "Eastern" principles.1

I first addressed this issue in a 2007 article in Bioethics where I discussed moral neo-colonialism and the possibility of a global bioethics.2 In it, I engaged with the Asian values movement and its rejection of any forms of global ethics, such as "human rights", as Western impositions and essentially forms of colonialism. The Asian values movement — associated originally with Malaysia and Singapore — has spread across Asia and Africa: in other words, this critique has been taken up and is identified with by scholars from all over the non-Western world.3

Asian Values

The roots of the Asian values movement are generally traced to Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, who, along with Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, are regarded as the founders of the Asian values movement. The Asian values movement argues that Western values (most particularly those implied in human rights and by rights and autonomy-based language) are alien to the values of Asian countries. These communities are said not to endorse Western individual values, but communitarian values, which support the political and religious order, are linked to business and government, and promote loyalty to the family and the wider community.4 Lee attributed Singapore's speedy economic achievements to such Asian values which he presented in contrast to western individual rights. For instance, he stated that, "we were an Asian-Oriental-type society, hardworking, thrifty and disciplined, a people with Asian Values, strong family ties and responsibility for the extended family which is a common feature of Asian cultures, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian".5 The Asian values movement denies the primary "Western rights" of liberty and instead claims to value communal values, such as hard work, thriftiness and individual discipline for family benefit. They reject "Western" individual rights, not only because they embody different values, but also on the grounds that Asian values are superior values. For instance, Mahathir has denounced individual Western values as being responsible for many aspects of community breakdown and the disintegration of society and solidarity...


Additional Information

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pp. 14-22
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2017
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