A Quibble with Baker’s Before Bioethics

My pile of books to read over this past Christmas and New Year included Baker’s recently published ‘Before Bioethics: A History of American Medical Ethics from the Colonial Period to the Bioethics Revolution.’ I was asked to review it for Social History of Medicine and have duly done so (short version: it’s very good and you should read it if it is of interest to you or relevant to your work in anyway). However, one thing caused me some disquiet that, due to the constraints of length, I did not get the chance to address in my review. It is a very minor point and the relevant text in Baker’s book is about three pages long. Regardless, it has stayed with me so I thought I would tackle it here. 

In his Chapter ‘Explaining the Birth of Bioethics, 1947-1999’ Baker has a section ‘Research Oversight: The Origins and Atrophy of Professional Self-regulation’ (p.281). It is subtitled ‘Percival’s Proposal for Research Ethics Committees.’ The reference is to Thomas Percival (1740-1804), a founding figure in the codification of medical ethics and, therefore, the professionalization of medicine i.e. the social institutionalization of medicine as a profession.* Interestingly Percival’s writings exerted their clearest and most immediate influence on the emergence of the American medical profession and not in the UK, where he lived and worked. 

Can Marriage Escape Culture? Can Love?

I have been thinking about love and marriage recently. No, I am not about to ruin someone’s life but, rather, have been trying to develop a response to a couple of recent papers which analyse the ethics of ‘(‘neuro’)enhancing’ love. The details of that need not concern us here as, in what, follows I want to discuss something Tauriq Moosa published on Comment is Free titled ‘We need to have a frank discussion about marriage’ and subtitled:

‘The reasons people normally cite for getting hitched no longer make sense. We should be asking: why get married at all?’

Of course, as autonomous and free (or ‘autonomous’ and ‘free’) individuals, and citizens of liberal democracies wedded to Mills’ Harm Principle, we do not generally need reasons to do something, as long as there is no reason – such as it will harm another - we ought not do it. Thus, one might legitimately respond, ‘why not get married?’ or, simply, ‘because I want to.’* Furthermore the article is not really a frank discussion of marriage but of four reasons we might think motivate people to get married, a quite different thing. However, given that we should not hold him responsible for the title or the sub-title of the piece - he is likely to have both placed over his work with little by way of consultation – it is perhaps best to turn to what he actually has to say.