Due to the increase in the number of medically-themed podcasts I now listened to I have recently come across an idea I had never before considered namely that bioethics is at its core antithetical to the Hippocratic principles of medicine. As someone who has considered both of these realms of thoughts during my academic career I thought I would work through my own thoughts in this blog.
At the heart of the supposed conflict between Hippocratic principles and bioethics is the latter’s supposed emphasis on utilitarianism as a guiding principle. The prioritization of the many at the cost of the individual supposedly undercuts doctors’ focus on the needs of a given individual patient. From earlier blogs, you know that I am in qualified agreement with this perspective. While “pure” bioethicists namely those who have no direct involvement with medicine but instead function as philosophers or academics do indeed seem to err on the side of utilitarianism those who use bioethics to augment their primary profession in medicine or the law seem to achieve greater balance. In my own bioethical writing, for example, I have largely focused on the so-called 5 key principles of bioethics as well as the need to challenge institutional authority in the service of improved patient care. Coming from the other end and considering the Hippocratic writings they offer potential support for almost any argument. With regards to serving the individual patient unwaveringly, one need only considers the passages regarding providing abortions for slaves and sex workers where the implicit advantage was not to the patient but rather those benefiting from their labor.
Ultimately this discussion can be settled perhaps unsatisfyingly by reminding those reading that no broad categorization can define the entirety of an intellectual tradition whether bioethics or the Hippocratic corpus.