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The Role of Philosophy in Global Bioethics: Introducing Four Trends


This article examines the relationship between philosophy and culture in global bioethics. First, it studies what is meant by the term “global” in global bioethics. Second, the author introduces four different types, or recognizable trends, in philosophical inquiry in bioethics today. The main argument is that, in order to make better sense of the complexity of the ethical questions and challenges we face today across the globe, we need to embrace the universal nature of self-critical and analytical philosophical analysis and argumentation, rather than using seemingly philosophical approaches to give unjustified normative emphasis on different cultural approaches to bioethics.

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1. For the scope of global bioethics, see, e.g., Cook, RJ, Dickens, BM, Fathalla, MF, eds. Reproductive Health and Human Rights: Integrating Medicine, Ethics, and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2003; Widdows, H, Dickenson, D, Hellsten, S. Global bioethics. New Review in Bioethics 2003;1:101–16; Farmer, P. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 2004; Kuhse, H, Singer, P, eds. A Companion to Bioethics. 2nd ed. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell; 2009.

2. For more analysis of what “global” means in the context of global ethics, see Hutchings, K. Thinking ethically about the global in “global ethics.” Global Ethics 2014;10(1):26–9.

3. See note 2, Hutchings 2014; for a normative global ethics account, see, e.g., Widdows, H. Global Ethics: An Introduction. Durham: Acumen; 2011.

4. Ten Have, H. The diversity of bioethics. Medicine, Heath Care and Philosophy 2013;16(4):635–7; see also the Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights; available at (last accessed 11 June 2014).

5. For more about the recent debate on non-Western criticism of the Western universalized concept of bioethics, see, e.g., Bracanovic, T. Against culturally sensitive bioethics. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 2013;16(4):647–52; Chattopadnayay, S, De Vries, R. Respect for cultural diversity in bioethics is an ethical imperative. Medicine, Heath Care and Philosophy 2013;16(4):647–52.

6. Sometimes basic issues such as sexual minority rights, legalizing abortion, the pressure to use contraceptives, and so on, can be presented as attempts to import Western decadent values and lifestyles. See also Tangwa, GB. Globalisation or Westernisation? Ethical concerns in the whole bio-business. Bioethics 1999 Jul;13(34):218–26.

7. For example, the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Tanzania is currently developing a multidisciplinary postgraduate program in bioethics.

8. Ogundiran, TO. Enhancing the African bioethics initiative. BMC Medical Education 2004;4(21); available at (last accessed 11 June 2014); Wasunna, A. The developments of bioethics in Africa. In: Neves, P, Lima, M, eds. Bioética ou bioéticas na in evolução das sociedades. Coimbra: Gráfica de Coimbra; 2005:331–4; available at (last accessed 11 June 2014). See also Akabayashi, A, Kodama, S, Slingsby, BT. Is Asian bioethics really the solution? Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2008;17:270–2.

9. Bodunrin, PO. The question of African philosophy. In: Wright, RA, ed. African Philosophy: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: University Press of America; 1984:120.

10. For an introduction to the four trends in African philosophical thought, see Oruka, HO. Four trends in current African philosophy. In: Coetzee, PH, Roux, APJ, eds. The African Philosophy Reader. London and New York: Routledge; 1998.

11. On various non-Western and/or nonuniversalist approaches to bioethics, see Cheng, M, Wong, K, Yang, W. Critical care ethics in Hong Kong: Cross-cultural conflicts as East meets West. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 1998;23(6):616–27; Kazumasa, H, ed. Japanese and Western Bioethics: Studies in Moral Diversity. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer; 1997; Tangwa, GB. Bioethics: An African perspective. Bioethics 1996;10(3):183200; and Tangwa, GB. Genetic information: Questions and worries from an African background. In: Thompson, A, Chadwick, R, eds. Genetic Information: Acquisition, Access, and Control. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum; 1998.

12. Originally, “ethnophilosophy” was the term Paulin Hountondji used to refer to the works of those anthropologists, ethnographers, and philosophers who present the collective worldview of African people and their myths and folklores and fold wisdom. See note 10, Oruka 1998, at 120–2. Similarly, ethnophilosophy in bioethics is based not necessarily on the works of professional philosophers but rather on those of researchers in other fields of study.

13. See note 10, Oruka 1998, at 120–2.

14. On various logical fallacies typical of transnational argumentation on bioethics, see Hellsten, S. Global bioethics and “erroneous reason”: Fallacies across the borders. In: Häyry, M, Takala, T, Herissone-Kelly, P, Árnason, G, eds. Arguments and Analysis in Bioethics. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi; 2009.

15. Häyry, M.What do you think of philosophical bioethics? Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2014;24(1):107–12.

16. I use a somewhat liberal interpretation of sage philosophy in this context. For a more traditional view, see Oruka, HO. Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. Nairobi: ACTS Press; 1991.

17. Takala, T. Demagogues, firefighters, and window dressers: Who are we and what should we be? Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2005;14:385–88.

18. In African philosophical debate, this trend is labeled “nationalist-ideological philosophy.” However, when applied in the context of bioethics, I take the liberty to rename it as ideological philosophy, as this more properly describes its contents.

19. Nationalist-ideological views in Africa were mostly presented by academicians turning into statesmen. The ideology was in returning pride to one’s own cultural history, values, and identity—and in criticizing the Western colonial powers for their hypocrisy and violation of their own moral principles, which called for respect, equal value, and sovereignty. See note 9, Bodunrin 1984.

20. See, e.g., Harris, J. Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press; 2007; and Singer, P. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1979.

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Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
  • ISSN: 0963-1801
  • EISSN: 1469-2147
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