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The transformation of (bio)ethics expertise in a world of ethical pluralism
  1. József Kovács
  1. Correspondence to Dr József Kovács, Department of Bioethics, Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Semmelweis University, Budapest, PO Box 370, 1445—Hungary; kovjozs{at}


Today, bioethics experts have an increasing role in public life. However, the question arises: what does bioethics expertise really mean? Can there be such a thing in our globalised world characterised by ethical pluralism? I will argue that bioethics as a discipline represents the transformation of ethics expertise from a hard to a soft form of it. Bioethics was born as a reaction to the growing awareness of ethical pluralism, and it denied the hard form of normative–prescriptive ethics expertise (the ability to determine what is the right course of action for others), particularly in its medical ethics form. In contrast, the traditional medical ethics model, and pre-modern societies in general, believed in hard normative ethics expertise. From this followed the characteristic paternalism of traditional medical practice: if physicians were experts in moral matters as well, if they knew what the right course of action to choose was, then they had a right to benevolently force this course of action on their patients. The remnants of this doctrine, although rarely stated explicitly, still can often be seen in clinical practice. The whole bioethics movement can be seen as a radical denial of the doctrine of physician's hard expertise in moral matters. Bioethics, however, represents a type of soft ethics expertise (mainly value sensitivity). Hence follows the seeming paradox of bioethics expertise: bioethics is both a denial of ethics expertise (in its hard form) as well as a type of (soft) ethics expertise.

  • Medical ethics
  • bioethics
  • ethics expertise
  • value pluralism
  • philosophical ethics
  • history of health ethics/bioethics

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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