On the universality of ethics (Rahul Peter Das 2012 and Hindu bioethics)

In a previous post I had discussed the importance of making the discussions on global ethics more inclusive. Now, while reading Rahul Peter Das’ On “Hindu” Bioethics (in Saṃskṛta-sādhutā, the Festschrift for Ashok Aklujkar) I found however a possible objection to this claim. In fact, as Das, shows, not all cultures have elaborated a distinct system of, e.g., bioethics, so that what is presented as “Hindu” or “Buddhist bioethics” is often an arbitrary construction.

For instance, Swasti Bhattacharyya (2006), according to Das

attempts to formulate a “Hindu” bioethics of assisted reproductive technology mainly by exploring birth narratives in the Mahābhārata–taken to represent “Hindu” thought per se. (p. 121)

This brings one to the more general question of whether each culture of the world must have developed a distinct bioethics. Das quotes Ann-Kristin Iwersen (2008) on this topic:

From a philosophical point of view, the problem with this is not so much the impossibility of an ethics having appeared in some non-European people [with God’s help, Iwersen is willing to concede this, EF], but, rather, that what are being presented as non-European ethics are mostly more in the nature of compilations of that which is, in the opinion of each particular author, regarded as proper in the respective ethnic groups, regions, or, as in the case of African philosophy, even whole continents. However, in cases which concern the convictions of humans, we do not for no reason still speak of ethos. Ethics, on the other hand, always implies the setting up of certain criteria for judging the rightness of moral action. (p. 122, emphasis added)

One can easily claim that ethics does not need to be systematic, and that this element is only typical of the particular historical instantiation of ethics we are more familiar with —yet Das is most probably right in warning against too arbitrary summaries of “Hindu ethics” or the like, especially when they are uncritically recommended to, e.g., physicians in their daily practice.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

8 thoughts on “On the universality of ethics (Rahul Peter Das 2012 and Hindu bioethics)

  1. Even in the West, the very concept of “bioethics” wasn’t coined until 1926. The concept seems to be a peculiar creature of 20th- and 21st-century hospital systems, not a universal human concern.

    • Amod, do you mean to say that you share Iwersen’s concern but that you think that this regards only the specif field of bioethics, due to its being a recent (and Western) concoction?

  2. I happen to think bioethics is more or less a “universal human concern” at least insofar as the theory and practice of biomedicine and the medical technologies associated with same, are increasingly found around the globe. That does not mean there are not alternative forms of medicine and healing that are quite capable of supplementing and perhaps (here and there) “correcting” problematic biomedical approaches to health and illness. And however otherwise interesting for any number of possible reasons, the origin(s) of bioethics should not detract from us its (arguable) relevance (lest we succumb to the genetic fallacy).

    It is certainly both true and important that “bioethics” arose in the context of Western biomedicine in affluent countries, including a technologically intensive form of health provision and care. There are a number of substantive critiques both from within and outside bioethics that we should take into consideration in any such discussion (e.g., Leigh Turner, “Bioethics in a Multicultural World: Medicine and Morality in Pluralistic Settings,” Health Care Analysis, Vol. II, No. 2, June 2003: 99-117; a couple of titles, one co-authored, by Onora O’Neill; and especially Grant Gillett’s very important book, Bioethics in the Clinic: Hippocratic Reflections [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004]). Moreover, the fact that bioethics in some respects has been marked by a conceptual and practical imperialism of sorts, with related cultural biases and blindness, accounts for the varied forms of “religious bioethics” that have appeared over the last several decades: Islamic bioethics, Christian bioethics, Judaic bioethics, and so forth. These approaches were/are meant to help physicians and others involved in the “modern” health care system deal with conventional “biomedical” questions with the requisite sensitivity to the individual lifeworlds and worldviews of patients from disparate cultural backgrounds and orientations/identities. Of course the relevance and quality of such works should be assessed by those with the requisite expertise and knowledge the in relevant fields of inquiry and praxis, so it’s certainly possible this or that work will fail to be representative of the best work in the field or even meet minimal conditions of consistency, cogency and relevance.

    Although it has not been updated for a while, I have a bibliography on bioethics here: https://www.academia.edu/4843927/Bioethics_bibliography
    This literature should be examined in light of a compilation of wider scope on health with regard to law, ethics, and justice: https://www.academia.edu/4844029/Health_Law_Ethics_and_Social_Justice_A_Basic_Bibliography

    As for different approaches to questions of health and healing from outside biomedicine proper, one can do worse than examine some of the literature appended to two posts I did some time ago on Chinese medicine (a series I hope to resume someday!): http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/04/toward-understanding-of-classical.html
    and here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/08/toward-understanding-of-classical.html

    • many thanks for this different perspective, Patrick! Do you think that the reflection on Chinese medicine is more well-grounded than the ones Das refers to in the case of “Hinduism”?

  3. Elisa,

    Apart from what’s posted here on the blog, I have not read Das’s article. However, I do not think anything that falls under the heading of “Hindu – ” or “Buddhist bioethcs” is NECESSARILY “aribitrary” (i.e., will have to examine and judge specific cases) as someone might sincerely and intelligently attempt to answer the sort of questions that fall generally within Western bioethics (the sorts of questions that arise in the settings of biomedicine and its technologies) with ethical material (and perhaps non-ethical material with ethical or ethical-like provocations or implications) from these worldviews in a way that warrants the adjectival appellation. I’m not qualified to address whether or not Chinese attempts to integrate biomedicine with classical Chinese medicine are any better (more successful, more well-grounded, sophisticated, etc.) than similar intellectual and practical endeavors elsewhere, as I’m still exploring the former, particularly in light of so-called “mind-body” and “alternative” medicine, as well as “traditional” or religious forms of healing. I imagine that someday we will have carved out “spaces” within modern (or post-modern) medicine for these other approaches with regards to at least some forms of illness as well as by way of respecting the way non-secular, pre-modern worldviews have conceptualized the body, heart-mind, soul, what have you…both in life and death (here’s where Grant Gillett’s work is indispensable). Whether or not this will come under the heading of “integration” or not, remains to be seen.

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