This week, KIE Senior Research Scholar John Keown was interviewed for BioEdge, a publication covering the wide-ranging scope of international bioethics discourse. Keown discussed a recently-published book project, Bioethics and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Bioethics, which was begun by the late Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown.
The framework of natural law has a long and distinguished history in practical ethics, but, posit Keown and Gómez-Lobo, it has recently been overshadowed by utilitarianism and principlism. Bioethics and the Human Goods argues that we still need an ethics which is founded upon “What is the good life?”
There is always a distance between theory and practice, whichever ethical theory one adopts. But, partly because of the centuries-long history of the natural law tradition, much of the intellectual heavy lifting about its application to practical situations has already been done. That rich storehouse of reflection has shaped our laws and codes of professional ethics, whether in relation to carrying out research on patients, to treating or withholding treatment, and to killing or not killing.
In any event, we should not forget that most clinicians, most of the time, are not confronted with complex, thorny bioethical issues. Most bioethical issues they face in everyday practice are fairly easily resolved by the application of established principles and codes of bioethics, such as those requiring informed consent and respect for confidentiality. And those principles and codes often reflect, to a greater or a lesser extent, natural law thinking, which requires respect for the basic rights and equality-in-dignity of each patient, not least the vulnerable, and that patients never be used as a mere means to the good of others.