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Definition: bioethics from Cambridge Dictionary of Human Biology and Evolution

Study of behaviors and policies concerning biological materials such as organ transplants, induced abortion and life termination, artificial insemination and sex selection, the use of embryonic tissue in research, and the engineering of genomes, among others.

Summary Article: Bioethics
From Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Society

Bioethics broadly describes the philosophical analysis of moral dilemmas, which arise from the development and application of biological and life sciences, often through such practices as medicine. Bioethics became a formal academic discipline in the late 1960s, developed through such institutions as The Hastings Center, which formalized research within academic journals and books. However, principles of bioethical concern have been apparent in a range of social practices for centuries.

Twentieth-century bioethics was dominated by a global effort to protect human subjects from exploitative practices. In the post-World War II era, these interests focused on governmental experimentation, but quickly expanded to include a range of institutionalized practices that affect individuals and communities, including the military, elite sport, healthcare, and employment. Theoretical approaches to bioethics in this era were characterized by a top-down derivation of principles, which aimed to provide overarching guidelines through which to codify ethical practice. Subsequently, bioethical theory critiqued the decontextualized approach of principle-based ethics and emphasized the complexity of real-world ethical decision making by developing a bottom-up or case-based (casuistry) approach.

However, broadly speaking, approaches to bioethics encompass three main forms of moral reasoning (1) consequentialism (concerned primarily to maximize good outcomes); (2) deontology (concerned with the obligations we hold); and (3) virtue theory (concerned with what kind of character good people should have).

At the turn of the millennium, bioethical debates focused on the rise of genetics, as the Human Genome Project neared completion. The application of genetic science through screening, testing or transfer generated numerous public controversies about “designer” organisms and led to the emergence of new biotechnological industries. Specialist inquiries into the emergence of genomics, genetically modified foods and a greater awareness about gene-environment interactions, slowly gave rise to a post-genomic scientific view and a resistance to genetic exceptionalism within bioethical research. To this end, attempts to establish a distinct subdiscipline of genethics have been largely inconsequential.

In this context, 21st-century bioethics faces a number of transformations. Primarily, there is a growing fragmentation of ethical communities (research and practice), which is giving rise to new terminologies, such as nanoethics or neuroethics. This fragmentation has been evident for some years through the overlapping ground between bioethics and medical ethics or environmental ethics. However, it is evident that this fragmentation will continue to grow through more specialist inquiries into subjects that include, for instance, the emerging subjects of information ethics, or the ethics of outer space.


Each of these subdisciplines emphasizes the importance of transdisciplinary approaches to bioethics, which draw heavily on philosophy, law, sociology, and political science, for instance. The fragmentation of bioethics is also amplified by convergence in the biosciences that operates around nanoscience. This process raises new questions about how to develop bioethical theory in a way that can accommodate new scientific practices. A corollary of these shifts is a growing sophistication in the bioethical method, which has begun to encompass narrative studies, feminist approaches to bioethics, cultural theory and aesthetics.

A final challenge to bioethics is the proliferation of new kinds of ethically engaged community and new interest groups, which themselves are altering the political landscape of bioethical debate. Prominent examples of this include discussions about human enhancement, as medical technologies increasingly make possible the ability to make humans “better than well,” according to Peter Kramer. It also encompasses the ethics of life or health extension, which arises as a direct consequence of attending to age-related disease. Many of these discussions have been taken up within a range of governmental advisory contexts, such as the United States President's Council on Bioethics or the European Parliament.

As bioethics evolves, its proximity to public policy has grown and various bioethical communities may be seen as lobby groups on behalf of specific ethical positions, such as the Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) in the United Kingdom. The challenge for nanoscience will be to define unique questions about the distinct terrain of nanoethics, while accommodating the widespread.

See Also

Ethics and Risk Analysis, Nano-Ethics, Nanomedicine, Nanomedicine, Ethical Issues of, United Kingdom.

Further Readings
  • Allhoff, Fritz, Lin, Patrick, Moor, James, and Weckert, John Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2007.
  • Beauchamp, Thomas L. and Childress, James F. Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 6th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Johnson, Deborah G. “Ethics and Technology ‘In the Making': An Essay on the Challenge of Nanoethics.” Nanoethics v.1. : , 2007.
  • Kuhse, Helga and Singer, Peter A Companion to Bioethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
  • Kramer, Peter. Listening to Prozac. London: Fourth Estate, 1994.
  • Murray, Thomas H. “Genetic Exceptionalism and ‘Future Diaries': Is Genetic Information Different From Other Medical Information?” In M.A. Rothstein, ed., Genetic Secrets: Protecting Privacy and Confidentiality in the Genetic Era. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Miah, Andy
    University of the West of Scotland
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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