Bioethics and the Myth of Relativism

Interview with Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk

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By Giovanni Patriarca



PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, JUNE 17, 2009 (Zenit.org).- A neuroscientist and ethicist is underlining the need to base bioethics in moral principles, and is affirming that even people who profess relativism count on certain absolutes in life.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is the director of education at the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center. He writes a monthly column for The Catholic Herald titled "Making Sense out of Bioethics."

In this interview with ZENIT, he discusses some of the need to base bioethics in absolute moral principles in light of recent events related to his field.

ZENIT: In recent years bioethics seems to have become a battleground where many interest groups try to impose their political views separated from any consideration of the field's moral foundations. The 2005 U.N. Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights could be considered a starting point, but it leaves some questions unanswered. Where is bioethics going in such a globalised world?

Father Pacholczyk: The declaration is, in my opinion, sufficiently vague as to be largely unhelpful when it comes to addressing challenging bioethical discussions and approaching serious moments of decision making.

The final line of the declaration speaks of how no one should be allowed to "engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity," but it does not specify any of these broad ideas in an applied or meaningful way.

In my own work, when it comes to fundamental human rights, perhaps the most obvious instance would be the fundamental rights of the human embryo, the youngest member of our human family.

Yet the word "embryo" is not ever mentioned in the declaration. I worry that much of our modern bioethical discourse simply "talks around" the key issues.

ZENIT: Recently in the United States, human embryonic stem cell research has been promoted by new federal funding, and the media reports that this has divided the public. What is the position of the Catholic Church in such a delicate moment?

Father Pacholczyk: The Catholic Church in this delicate moment, as in every moment, expounds and authoritatively teaches the natural law.

The moral truth about human embryonic stem cell research can be known by the light of natural reason.

The issue is a matter of basic human rights. I sometimes remind people that each of us is merely an embryo who grew up.

Once we grasp this basic biological fact correctly, and once we see the truth of the proposition that all are created equal, that all deserve equal protection under the law, human embryonic stem cell research, insofar as it requires the destruction of embryos, can be seen for what it is: an action that is always and everywhere immoral.

ZENIT: Can the field of bioethics survive without moral absolutes or does it face the possibility of remaining persistently adrift?

Father Pacholczyk: Moral absolutes form the bedrock of society and are a sine qua non for its just ordering.

Moral absolutes also stand at the root of all sound bioethics. The proclamation that "there are no moral absolutes by which we are bound" is itself an absolutist moral statement.

Interestingly, nobody really believes in moral relativism today anyway; they simply believe that when it comes to absolute morality, they themselves must be the arbiters of what is moral and what is not.

I have never met anyone who didn't insist on moral absolutes of some kind. Even those of the most liberal-minded, relativist stripe will, when pushed, insist that certain actions are absolutely wrong, whether it is polluting and causing global warming, killing polar bears, or threatening the South American rainforests.

When it comes to killing young humans in the womb, these same liberal-minded individuals will paradoxically insist that everybody should be free to choose to do whatever they want, although such radical freedom of choice will be summarily denied by them to anyone who might wish to take the lives of pandas or dolphins.

In other words, they exercise a selective absolutism, where they are the ones to decide, often based on unexamined sentiment, those matters that are to be held as absolutely wrong. Their own myopic version of the truth, which is really only a partial and incomplete image of it, becomes a kind of central focus and obsession for them.

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On the Net:

National Catholic Bioethics Center: http://www.ncbcenter.org/