Remarks by James Rusthoven

Remarks by James Rusthoven

A Biblical Covenantal Ethic:

An Ethical Framework for Medical and Environmental Bioethics

Humankind continues to look for meaning in life through which new biotechnologies can give concrete expression toward a better material and moral life. To this end, much of our current culture is formatively influenced by a modernist vision of this better life through science. At the same time, the speculative post-modern disillusionment with this worldview gropes for common moral truths that might give the products of such science richer meaning for our lives.

Many people still find ultimate meaning in their lives through foundational beliefs outside of created reality. Among them, models of right living often come from norms revealed by an authoritative supreme Being who reveals direction for the concrete expression of moral dispositions and actions. Traditionally, those with fundamental faith in rationality have suppressed or outright refused entry of religious beliefs into public policy deliberations regarding biotechnologies. They have argued that such beliefs are not rational, can be disruptive, and therefore should be relegated to private morality.

Despite the utopian prediction of their eventual demise, diverse moral communities persist, each living out its set of core beliefs within its communities and in its interactions with those outside their communities. Contemporary philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas look for common threads of communication to provide some binding force for moral consensus and truth, outwardly respecting the diversity of foundational beliefs while retaining hope in an eventual single worldview of human salvation through reason. In a similar relational spirit, Immanuel Levinas argues that philosophy's historical focus on rational discursive reflection is fundamentally flawed. In its place he proposes a relational refocus toward understanding others by disposing of one's own biases and concentrating on the needs and welfare of others. These two philosophical approaches exemplify the disillusionment in both the modernist dream of salvation through scientific progress and the post-modernist stalemate of relative truths.

In this cultural milieu, bioethics has evolved as a reactive, multidisciplinary merger of ethical concerns over unethical medical and environmental behaviour. As the dominant bioethical framework, principles-based ethics presupposes a common morality from which principles of bioethics can be distilled and followed as moral standards of disposition and action. Moral agreement is pursued through the search for commonly held beliefs toward eventual rational consensus. The authority of moral judgments rendered from principles comes from the process and consensus itself. There is no perceived need for appeals to an extratemporal authority.

For many, biotechnologies have become associated with power and financial gain, often with disregard for their ethical consequences. Such power and profit-seeking have coercive and corruptive influence that can subvert the normative focus on the needs of the ill and vulnerable in medicine while distorting and inflating the role of humankind in the created order, leading to environmental disorder and mismanagement.

Very recently, experienced bioethicists like Robert Veatch and philosophers like Habermas have begun to realize that religious views, previously perceived as irrational, may actually enrich rather than detract from moral deliberations around the table of public moral reflection. At the same time, some physicians have proposed a covenantal approach to ethics, albeit rooted in the pagan Greek medical tradition and grounded only in gratitude to past mentors and mythological stories. In this climate of increased openness to religious ideas and of appeals to a relational focus for medical and environmental ethics, a covenantal ethic grounded in the biblical story of creation and subsequent human struggles can provide common human justification for moral reflection and vigilance.

Such an ethical framework encourages environmental stewardship that sees the relational value and responsibilities of humankind for other creatures and for creational structures. The common creational origin of human stewardship and the gracious preservation of a remnant of moral conscience provide the starting point for normative ethical activity in these areas. Similarly, medical practitioners, researchers, and educators can focus caregivers and corporate stakeholders on the delivery of care while pledging to resist coercive tendencies to gain profit over the care of patients.

A biblical covenantal ethic grounded in the human covenant with God provides robust authoritative justification for human moral interaction and moral living that harkens back to creation itself. In medicine, attention is drawn to the moral risks of increasingly complex relational interactions between individuals and institutions involves in patient care and medical research. On environmental issues, Egbert Schuurman and others have begun reflections with Muslim and Christian communities linked by common ideas of creational respect and responsibility. Similar reflections with morally-serious secular colleagues and neighbors might be possible through a common covenantal bond of creational sensitivity and stewardship. In addition, this model articulates a human anthropology that supports the human status of the unborn as image-bearer through the creational covenant with God and as recipient of loving nurturing that reflects the same creational covenant.