Bioethics in awe of technology: A proposal for addressing this bias

Paul Macneill1

1 Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney, NSW 2006

This address will take a critical approach to the emphasis given to  “advances in medical science and technology” and to “sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic interventions.” The question proposed for the AABHL Conference—‘How do we go about making sound decisions in the face of these challenges?’—has to overcome this bias toward technology, before any well-rounded and practical answer can be found.

The claim is part of a more general criticism of bioethics and its predominant emphasis on “advances in medical science and technology”. Whilst these issues are important, they assume a significance that is out of proportion to their relevance in day-to-day health care practice. The concern is that the bioethics and health law community has become enthralled by sexy issues raised by science and technology and has been drawn away from commonplace ethical concerns which are more relevant to health care practice.

Part of the problem is in the understanding of ethics as being about ‘moral reasoning’ rather than ‘ethical practice.’ Another part of the problem is that it is easier to grapple with intellectual issues than it is to adequately address issues of practice. However, we do health care students and clinicians a disservice when we fail to address the ‘how’ of ethical practice.

One effective way to overcome this imbalance is to provide ‘workshop’ training that draws on the skills and methods of the arts. Examples of work of this kind—from the UK (Performing Medicine), from Singapore, and from Sydney (Sydney Arts and Health Collective) will be described. The use of aesthetic material (such as the bioethisphere) and insights from the medical humanities will also be discussed

The broader contention is that health care practice is an ‘art’, and that art and aesthetics are relevant to bioethics. The paper will draw on discussions in a published collection of essays that support this contention (Macneill, 2014).

Macneill, Paul (Editor)
2014. Ethics and the Arts. Springer: Amsterdam.


Paul Macneill has a long-standing interest in ethics and the arts. This is reflected in a number of publications including his edited book Ethics and the Arts (Springer: 2014) which includes explorations of all the arts—literature, visual arts, film, music, theatre, and dance—in relation to ethics.

For close to 30 years, he has taught ethics and law to medical students: at the National University of Singapore, the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.