The Quasi-Religious Nature of Secular Clinical Ethics
Abram Brummett, Assistant Professor, Oakland University William Beaumont SOM
Bioethics was born of theologically informed voices critiquing a reductionistic account of the human person in medicine. However, the field gained public acceptance by moving to a secular discourse that eschews religious premises, and the proper role of religion in secular bioethics has been debated ever since. Secularists have argued that public bioethics should advance arguments with premises that are shared by all, objective, and neutral towards if not outright dismissive of religious belief. Those who oppose the secular view argue it fails to remain neutral towards faith-based premises because the arguments of secular morality ultimately rely on premises that function much like God does for religious ethics. This presentation suggests a middle way, arguing that secular clinical ethics is neither religious, nor non-religious, but quasi-religious. Two arguments are advanced to support the claim that secular clinical ethics is quasi-religious. The first accepts a broad definition of religion as a worldview comprised of foundational moral, metaphysical, and epistemological commitments. On this definition, it is argued that bioethical consensus is quasi-religious because it contains moral, metaphysical, and epistemological commitments (the religious aspect) that do not rise to the level of a comprehensive religious worldview (the quasi aspect). The second argument acknowledges that the moral, metaphysical, and epistemological commitments of bioethical consensus are ultimately presumed, not proven (the religious aspect), but nevertheless holds those commitments have significant weight because they have been produced by decades of rationally constrained interdisciplinary debate (the quasi aspect). The purpose of this thesis is not to delegitimize secular clinical ethics but to articulate a more accurate view of the discipline that resists the growing divide between religious and non-religious voices at a time when our increasingly divisive public discourse is in need of common ground. A quasi-religious understanding of secular clinical ethics can produce a more dynamic, inclusive, and self-aware discourse that will be critical for addressing the daunting questions looming on the horizon of the field.