Medicine and Ethics: Religious or Secular?

By Yusuf Lenfest

There is no lack of controversy when talking about religion and medicine in America today. Medicine is studied, practiced, and firmly rooted in the corporal world while religion draws inspiration from texts, traditions, and the incorporeal. Yet from an historical perspective, religious pasts do shape the present, particularly in the realm of ethics and moral reasoning. Indeed, whatever one’s spiritual or philosophical predilections, religion continues to play a major role in the dialogue on medicine and health care in Western society.

Bioethics in particular has become a topic of growing interest in America, but there has been little critical discussion about its contextual underpinnings, which stem largely from a Western Christian perspective. This is not to say that another religion would arrive at radically different system of morals. While differences do exist amongst religious traditions, across both space and time, experience and common sense tell us that diverse religious traditions do in fact share in much of the same moral principles and foundations. So what might other religious traditions say about, or contribute to, the discourse on bioethics? Should religion even be included in the conversation, especially given that health care and healing belong to the sphere of medicine?

Historical and Philosophical Context

The aim of my work (and this and upcoming blog posts) is not to advance or defend any theistic argument, nor to attack secular consensus on shared moral values. Just as maintaining religious belief is no guarantee of balanced moral character nor is disavowal of religion or belief in the transcendent a marker of ethical impartiality. Instead, I mean to show that moral philosophers and ethicists do not always acknowledge, nor are they necessarily aware of, the way in which their method of analysis is itself a direct result of a particular European and Western epistemology, which, in turn, has its own Christian origins. The theories and methods of thought that developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, to say nothing of the long line of thinkers, were a direct result of the wrestling between Christianity and philosophy, followed by a secularization of the Christian ethic. It is precisely this paradigm in which we find ourselves today, and the historical and philosophical context which partly informs the inquiry of my work. What is peculiar to the Western study of ethics is that the “outsider perspective”—what we might call the secular, the academic, the material—is presumed to be simultaneously neutral and to supersede previous theological, religious, or so-called partisan or biased perspectives, whence its authority. With that, however, there is an underlying assumption that the secular thinker or the purely material account can somehow stand outside of the subject and be entirely neutral while also implying that only neutral knowledge is true knowledge.

By calling into question the secular-religious divide, I hope to explore how issues in medicine and bioethics might serve to facilitate consensus rather than division. In addition to contributing to the academic debate on religion and medicine—particularly vis-à-vis an account of bioethics according to the Islamic tradition in which my research will focus this year as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow—there is also practical relevance to such an inquiry. Practitioners of medicine, the sick and their families, Muslim legal scholars and faith leaders—all are affected by questions directly related to practical ethics and medicine. How should physicians discuss religion or spirituality with their patients? Has religion or spirituality been shown to have any positive benefits on the quality of life of the sick or on the terminally ill?

Real philosophical action—be it ethical or legal—and greater consensus on these questions in the realm of medicine, health, and healing will not take place over the logic of religious ethics but rather in whatever forces—whether rational or nonrational—that incline people toward religious faith or against it in the first place. The constitutive good—whether it is a belief in reason over desire, the inherent benevolence of the natural world, or the intuitively benign nature of human sentiment—orients us towards the evaluations that we make and the goods we aspire towards. In this way, our acculturation into a tradition—whether religious or secular, Eastern or Western—informs our moral composition. We should therefore look philosophically at philosophies and religions themselves in such a way as to question our own “situatedness.” In so doing, we will come to encounter positions that have arisen throughout the world that might seem counter-intuitive to the current paradigm generally regarded as “universal” in the West; but by taking these seriously—even if one is not convinced by them—it helps to reassess our given assumptions, and allows us to contribute to the greatest human good. Ideas that have arisen across the world and across history have much to offer: though they may cut against our intuitions, we don’t necessarily have to agree with them, but we ought to at least realistically consider them. This is for the sake of not only more representative and accurate scholarship, but also for a more vibrant and critical engagement with the subtleties in meaning of both “the secular” and “the religious” in relation to practical ethics, bioethics, medicine, health, and the pursuit of the good.

Stay tuned for my next post on the subject!

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