The virtue-centered historicism exemplified by Maclntyre might seem, at first, to be yet another item on the menu of moral epistemologies, yet another intellectual position for ethicists to choose and then defend. But it would be a mistake to view it in this way. Moral epistemology, as a historicist like Maclntyre conceives of it, differs from moral epistemology as most moral epistemologists have conceived of it. Maclntyre denies the ability to transcend all traditional allegiances and to spell out the conditions for moral knowledge in general and as such. As Maclntyre suggests, the moral system it would be rational to adopt depends on who one is and how one understands oneself; there is no moral system that is rational without qualification (1988). This is certainly not to suggest a radical moral relativism, since one's initial loyalties, convictions, and self-understandings are precisely what are to be tested by inquiry and comparative criticism. One must begin inquiring somewhere, however, and the only available starting points are within the assumptions and ways of life of the specific traditions one happens to inhabit.

Thus, for historicists like Maclntyre, Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jeffrey Stout, moral epistemology can no more escape the gravitational pull of human practice and human history than can any other form of inquiry. Since they cannot be detached from the changing, finite traditions that give them rational legitimacy, it may be more accurate to speak of moral epistemologies in the plural rather than a singular moral epistemology.

The implications of historicism for bioethics are, if anything, even more profound. Since claims to moral knowledge are always made within specific traditions of thought and practice, the claims made by bioethicists about informed consent, active and passive euthanasia, paternalism and autonomy will inevitably reflect these particular traditions and will preclude appeal to any neutral ground transcending these traditions to bioethics as such. "Bioethics as such," like "rationality as such," is a post-Enlightenment fiction. Each moral tradition—whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or secular—will provide resources for bioethical reflection, but the individual bioethicist cannot escape reflecting and theorizing as a member of his or her tradition, as opposed to being a disengaged, impersonal spectator on "universal values." From the vantage point of historicism, bioethical inquiry and debate need to be reconfigured as conflict among and reconciliation between these traditions, which give moral thought and action their lease on life.


SEE ALSO: Authority in Religious Traditions; Autonomy; Care; Communitarianism and Bioethics; Conscience; Conscience, Rights of; Consensus, Role and Authority of; Feminism; Medicine, Art of; Natural Law; Principalism; Profession and Professional Ethics; Utilitarianism; Virtue and Character; and other Ethics subentries

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