Contested Norms

The History and Future of Bioethics
A Sociological View
John H. Evans
Oxford University Press, $45, 199 pp.

In a recent New York Times piece, the philosopher Colin McGinn suggested that the academic discipline of philosophy faces a sort of identity crisis. Those outside the academy think of philosophy as the exploration of matters of wisdom and meaning, while actual philosophers understand their work very differently. McGinn suggested a radical resolution—dropping the name “philosophy” and replacing it with a new one. “The present name,” he wrote, “is obsolete, misleading, and harmful.”

Something very much like this diagnosis is applied to the field of bioethics in sociologist John Evans’s engaging new work. The History and Future of Bioethics assesses a discipline—and a profession—in crisis. By Evans’s count, there have been eleven federal bioethics commissions since 1974, and while the work of the early ones was largely uncontroversial, recent commissions have generated division and provided a prominent battleground in the ongoing culture war. For example, the Human Embryo Research Panel and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission were sharply criticized and largely...

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