What, ultimately, will anthropology contribute to the field of bioethics, an increasingly important domain of inquiry in national and international discourses about culture, morality, and health? Whether the question is appropriate care for the dying, the donation and transplantation of human organs, the evaluation of new medical technologies, informed consent in scientific research, or national and international health disparities, the anthropological contribution will be to create carefully researched accounts of how the moral good is located in particular local worlds. Ethnographic methodologies make possible such accounts. Ethnography provides the tools for a robust description of the social dynamics of ordinary moral experience. The application of ethnography in bioethics promises to counter the prevailing policy discourse controlled by economics, decision analysis, and legal procedures, a discourse that often silences social suffering while at the same time providing the illusion of control to individuals (Kleinman, 1999, p. 89).
The paradox of relativism cannot be resolved. Instead, the work of medical anthropologists will enhance our understanding of the moral rendering and interpretation of health practices, scientific discovery, and the various uses and abuses of power in global biomedicine. A single set of universal principles or procedures will be inadequate. Bioethical approaches dominated by a simplistic application of respect for individual autonomy will fail not only in societies with a more nuanced view of the socially embedded nature of personhood, but in the West as well. In healthcare practice and in scientific research, procedures based on respectful negotiation among competing claims—measures informed by moral pragmatism—are most likely to avoid harm and contribute to the common good. Medical anthropologists have a vital role to play in furthering our understanding of the cultural construction of bioethics practices and their applications throughout the world.
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