Heroes & Villains

A Rich Bioethics
Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council
Adam Briggle
University of Notre Dame Press, $30, 240 pp.

In the apocalyptic closing lines of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre worries about the contemporary West’s decline into moral barbarism.

If my account of our moral condition is correct...we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point [from civility to barbarism].... This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.

According to MacIntyre’s narrative, we face a stark choice: Aristotle or Nietzsche. Either we can return to a teleological conception of human nature and remember the importance of the virtues in human communities, or we can slide still further into the muck of a Nietzschean nihilism. If the former, what matters is that we build communities of virtue and civility capable of sustaining intellectual and moral life. Thus, in the final sentence of After Virtue MacIntyre writes: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Anyone familiar with MacIntyre’s narrative of decline and hoped-for renewal is likely to be struck by the similarities with this account of Adam Briggle’s depiction of contemporary bioethics in A Rich Bioethics. In Briggle’s view, bioethics is in disarray largely because it has succumbed to what he calls “instrumentalism.” Although he never fully defines instrumentalism, Briggle sketches a set of views about...

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