Biocthics and Secular Humanism: The Search for a Common Morality.. by H Tristram Engelhardt Jr (SCM Press #22.50).
James Smith IN Professor Englehardt's view. secular humanism attempts to articulate what humans hold in common without special appeal to religious or other particular moral or metaphysical assumptions. It is the kind of articulation that many might argue is a worthwhile goal in the multi-ethnic continents of today.
For the author sees most of us as "moral strangers", involved in moral controversies without sharing a "concrete moral vision". But secular humanism hopes to provide moral strangers with a common moral framework.
The author is particularly interested in thc morality of decisions made about the delivery of health care. He points out that this is the era of high cost and high technology health care which increasingly entails debate about the interpretmion, manipulation and refashioning of human nature.
Ethical issues are therefore tiot just limited to decisions about abortion and termination of life but also relate to decisions about priorities in the distribution of health care resources.
He is quite right about that. For example, in the United Kingdom, about one million people suffer from incontinence and receive minimal help from the NHS. Yet increasing resources are being allocated to the thousands seeking hip replacement and organ transplant surgery.
So-called community care often exploits the goodwill of relatives, friends and neighbours. I concur with the author's sense of urgency. For. as he points out, decision-makers now have even greater challenges associated with genetic engineering, fetal tissue transplantation and the increased life expectancy of able and disabled people. They also have to work within a costcontainment ideology.
Professor Engelhardt recognises the complexities of his task. He illustrates this so well, for example, in his discussion of the various definitions of humanism and secularity. But he argues that a rational perspective is not merely a choice made from a number of alternatives but one "which can be defended on the basis of general principles," which provide reasons to support the view taken.
This perspective is as relevant to health care policy decisions as to a decision made following "an atheist asking a Catholic physician for euthanasia". I have a good deal of empathy with that view.
The author concludes that "by providing a moral standpoint for moral strategies, secular humanism sets itself free from its historical roots and deprives itself of its traditional content .. . The focus is on persons as such because they are the only beings who pose moral questions and attempt to answer them."
This is a truly scholarly publication. The writer is totally immersed in the relevant literature and history. He acknowledges the contributions of the Greeks, the Romans, and the great religious and secular thinkers of the past and present. The relationships between ethics, health and religion are identified throughout the text which is clearly and concisely written. The polemic is fascinating and represents a model of philosophical discourse in the search for "truth".
Obviously, the specialist reader will derive greatest benefit from its contents and the way the thesis is developed and argued. But, I hasten to add, any reasonably intelligent nonspecialist reader will glean a great deal from perusing its pages. The main essay is confined to 140 pages: the other 66 pages are allocated to informative notes and references and an index.
This publication should certainly be placed in the libraries of all institutions responsible for the education of priests, religious, theologians and members of the health care professions. I have also no doubt at all that all bishops, clergy and teachers of theology should place it on their essential reading lists — without delay. James Smith is Editor of the Journal of Advanced Nursing and visiting fellow in nursing studies at Bournemouth Polytechnic.