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Edited by E F Paul, F D Miller, J Paul. Cambridge University Press, 2002, £15.99, pp 395. ISBN 0521525268
This is a collection of 15 papers from “philosophers, social scientists, and academic lawyers” concerned with “the field of bioethics itself”, “bioethics’s role in contemporary society”, and “specific issues”, including some—such as the role of the pharmaceuticals—not often addressed in such collections. They have all been commissioned for the volume either by or through the Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation, located in the USA, on whose behalf Cambridge University Press has published it in the UK. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that it should be so parochial: all the contributors are from North America, and the focus of the book is very much on bioethics and on society as that discipline and that entity respectively are understood and thought about in the USA. In some cases, of course, that is fine, because extrapolation from the American to the more general case is no less obvious than it is easy; in others, however—and it would be unfair of me to single out particular contributors, as my worry is addressed to the editors, and, even more, to the publishers—the material is very closely tied to the specificities of the circumstances and realities of the USA.
Academically rigorous though the collection is, therefore, it is not easy to see exactly whom it is intended to address: clearly not, for instance, MA/MSc students on healthcare ethics courses in the UK. Certainly this anthology is a very different sort of anthology from, say, Blackwell’s 1999 Bioethics: An Anthology. Unlike most such collections, which are intended to be used as textbooks, this one appears to be aimed very much at academics working in the broad field of bioethics. Again, that is in itself no bad thing. But the difficulty with this particular example is that its interest even for that constituency would seem quite limited: it lies more in its constituting something of a collective position statement from the Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation rather than as forming even a specialist anthology offering a range of views and material conveniently collected together. For the entire collection—even those articles that are somewhat more questioning of common liberal positions than others—assumes both the validity and the value of a basically liberal outlook. However much infused by the spirit of a Rawlsian egalitarianism, the fundamental assumptions and attitudes of the politics and the philosophy of liberalism remain unquestioned. Differences, disagreements, and suggestions are all matters of adjusting the basics of that tradition rather than subjecting it to any fundamental critique—let alone rejecting it altogether. Again, then, the impression is that of a parochialism, and of one which is no less intellectual than social and geopolitical.
Those interested in seeing how the land lies within the field of bioethics as a growth industry in the USA, and/or in seeing what liberal assumptions amount to as they pan out in American bioethics, might well find this a useful anthology. Those with less specialised (or indeed quite different) concerns, however, are unlikely to find it very illuminating.