- Bioethics as a Way of Life: The Radical Bioethos of Van Rensselaer Potter
The argument which is made by a man’s life is of more weight than that which is furnished by words.—Isocrates, “Antidosis”
In recent years, bioethics has become the subject of intense criticism. According to Carl Elliott, “many bioethicists are no longer clearly scholars or clinicians, but a strange hybrid of policymaker, pundit, and bureaucrat, floating on the borders of the government, the business world, and the advice industry. Unmoored from a tradition, unanswerable to a professional code, in the university but not quite of it, bioethics is fast becoming another cog in the complex machinery of business, entertainment, and politics that controls the shape and direction of American life.”1 Elliott’s critique charges that the very character of bioethics has been corrupted by its proximity to money, power, and politics. How can bioethicists speak with credibility if they are funded by corporations that have committed some of the most egregious ethical violations in recent history?2 How can we trust bioethical deliberation that emerges not from the clinic or the university, but from a political platform? Although Elliott has been the loudest buzzing gadfly on this point, he is not alone.3 John Evans and Jonathan Moreno, for example, have also argued that bioethics is in a moment of crisis.4
While these critics are right to be concerned, in this essay I suggest that the way forward is not to retrench to the academy and clinic in search of an imaginary space immune from the economic and political influences Elliot decries, but to move outward: to broaden what we mean by “bioethics” and, in so doing, to expand where and when it happens, who may practice it, and why it matters. In what follows I seek to sketch out the contours of a more radical kind of bioethics. [End Page 7] Radical, that is, in two senses: radical as foundational, returning to the field’s roots, and in the process, radical as revolutionary, an uprooting that may allow for a new pattern of growth.
The birth of bioethics as a discipline is usually linked to the founding of the Hastings Center in 1969 and of the Kennedy Institute for Ethics in 1971. However, credit for coining the word “bioethics” is often granted to research oncologist Van Rensselaer Potter, who first used it in 1970 but who had little interaction with either of these institutions.5 Potter’s bioethics was dramatically different from the discipline that coalesced under its name. Closely attuned to the effects of environmental carcinogens, Potter envisioned bioethics as a field that would explore the relationship between the health of human beings and the health of the rest of the natural world. Potter’s bioethics extended beyond simply appreciating the intersection of human health and the environment: bioethics was to be global in scope, transdisciplinary in method, and, most importantly, compelled by a commitment to action that demanded personal engagement with social issues. Despite the expansive vision of bioethics found in Potter’s work, however, or perhaps because of it, the field Potter christened has largely ignored the substance of his thought.
I am not the first to suggest that bioethics might look to its linguistic past to unearth an alternative perspective on its future.6 In an essay on Potter in the American Journal of Bioethics, Peter Whitehouse has argued that Potter’s work has the potential to change the field by asking bioethicists to engage more fully with the local and global communities of which they are a part.7 In what follows, I hope to apply Potter’s thought more broadly—beyond institutional bioethics sited in the academy or clinic and into what Tod Chambers has called “vernacular bioethics,” a more ordinary and what I will argue is a more quotidian understanding of bioethics.8 This sense of bioethics as an everyday practice is exemplified by the “Bioethical Creed for Individuals” Potter introduced in his first book, Bioethics: Bridge to the Future.9 I argue that the creed promotes what I will call a bioethos, a way of living on behalf of life itself. To...