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Religion's place at the table of ‘secular’ medical ethics: a response to the commentaries
  1. Nigel Biggar
  1. Correspondence to Professor Nigel Biggar, Christ Church, Oxford OX1 1DP, UK; nigel.biggar{at}

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‘Why religion deserves a place in ‘secular’ medicine’1 has provoked three commentaries—one each from Kevin R Smith, Brian D Earp and Xavier Symons. I am grateful to all of these for taking the time and trouble. In the response that follows the constraints of space have precluded me from being comprehensive and required me to be terse.

Kevin Smith objects to my argument in favour of religion's place at the ‘secular’ table of deliberation about medical ethics on the following grounds: religious ethics are not universal, many of their claims appeal to God's authority rather than to reason, they fail to take into account the possibilities that modern technology offers, when they are rational they cease to be religious, and it is incapable of the give-and-take of rational exchange. In contrast, Smith tells us, ‘secular’ ethics in general are based on a set of principles that are open to rational analysis, and utilitarianism in particular has the potential to attract universal agreement ‘because happiness and suffering … are respectively high valued and strongly deprecated by virtually all agents’.

Smith seems unaware of how controversial his narrow concept of reason is, adopts a simplistic understanding of the relationship between reason and authority, fails to distinguish between popular religion and the academic discipline of religious ethics, writes unfairly about contemporary developments in the latter, neglects to acknowledge the strength of opposition within moral philosophy to utilitarianism, and entertains a utopian view of the possibility of universal ethical consensus. On the other hand, the issue he raises about the relationship between the nature of the religious ethicist's ethical reasons and their relationship to his religious convictions is a crucial one, and it deserves more clarity than I gave it in my article. I shall address this later, but first let me make …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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