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Public Policy and the future of Bioethics1


This highly speculative paper seeks to discern where the discipline of Bioethics may be heading in the next decade or two. It is clear that the rapid pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation will not slacken, and, as a result, fresh moral issues, for which there are no precedents in currently accepted moral wisdom, will rapidly emerge. This mushrooming of ethical problems will be taking place at a time of increasing moral pluralism, when common moral values become harder to establish, and powerful subgroups embrace moral dogmatism, whether religious or secular in character.

Faced with such complexity and confusion, governments and industrial groups will increasingly seek guidance from bioethics "experts", through paid consultancies, advisory panels and commissioned reports on specific topics. But Bioethics itself is currently in a stage of flux: 1. Certain research areas in Bioethics have 'bolted' (in the horticultural sense), because of a rich injection of funds - notably genetics and stem cell research - while other areas are relatively under-researched. 2. Inter-disciplinarity has become de rigueur, largely under funder pressure, and, allied to this, an insistence on empirical work has created conceptual confusions. 3. There is a continuing ferment in bioethical theory, with little sign of productive co-operation between rival camps. Indeed theoretical enrichment seems to lag far behind the constant demand for relevance and 'applied ethics'.

So what of the future? I detect certain trends, some to be deplored and discouraged, others to be applauded and nurtured. On my 'black list' are: the commercialisation of Bioethics; and the dumbing down of several critical disciplines in the name of relevance. On my 'white list' are: further adventures in theory; inter-disciplinarity come of age; and the future envisioned in today's young minds.


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Campbell, A.V. Public Policy and the future of Bioethics1. Life Sci Soc Policy 1, 86 (2005).

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