Andrea Vicini, S.J.: The Future of Bioethics

On November 11, Andrea Vicini, S.J. the Gasson Chair professor at Boston College, presented the annual Gasson Chair lecture on “The Future of Bioethics.” Vicini first identified three major areas of concern for contemporary bioethical inquiry:
- The first, health care, is an obvious concern, but Vicini pointed out the global dimension of this issue, noting that 70% of the world’s population cannot afford health care.

- The second concern, research, is a familiar topic for bioethical inquiry, and developments in biomedical and biotechnological research always raises new moral dilemmas that ethicists need to be aware of. Vicini pointed out specifically the ethical challenges raised by the new discipline, synthetic biology, which combines elements of engineering, chemistry, biology, and computer science to redesign life as we know it at the molecular level.

-The third area of concern Vicini addressed is the problems created by global emergencies like HIV, which have not only biological and medical dimensions, but also social dimensions.

Does bioethics have a future in addressing such complex issues? Vicini thinks that bioethics, a relatively new discipline, historically a branch of applied philosophical ethics, does have a future in addressing these and other issues, but to do so, the discipline must evolve:

-First, bioethics can no longer be seen as a mere area of philosophical inquiry with implications for policy, but must be understood as a practice. Quoting Baruch Brody, Vicini noted that the future of bioethics must be regarded as a “working practice, not solely a collection of arguments and ideals.”

-The second dimension of Vicini’s vision of the future of bioethics is the discipline’s prophetic nature. By “prophetic,” Vicini is referring to a human capacity to “speak truth to power.” Bioethicists have to be ready to make ethical proposals, to challenge the status quo, and to have the courage themselves to live out their ethical beliefs. A prophet is inspiring not only in word, but also in example. Future bioethicists have an extraordinary responsibility to live in a way worthy of their calling.

-Finally, Vicini’s vision of the future of bioethics sees the discipline as transformative, not only on the level of public policy, but on an individual level. Genetic developments are allowing us to transform human nature on a biological level, but Vicini also thinks that bioethics has the power to transform on an ontological and existential level. Bioethics allows us to see concretely the relational dimension of human nature, and the discipline should proceed in such a way according to Vicini that strengthens those relationships, allowing us to extend those relationships to a universal level, whereby human beings see their connection not only with other human beings, but also with the natural world around them. Bioethics should help human beings identify their place in the cosmos.


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