Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996.
Reviewed by Nicholas J. Zook
In 1966, Max Scheler published “Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik,” later translated into English under the title, “Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values,” in which he applied the phenomenological principles of observation and analysis first pioneered by Edmund Husserl to study ethical theory and practice. At the heart of his work lies the observation that values, and the choices that valuing offers, can be described in a series of continuums. Each of these continuums can be “ranked” in a hierarchy of ethical horizons, or “value modalities.”
The first of these value modalities he described as ranging from “agreeable” to “disagreeable” states of sensible feelings. In this range, ethical decisions are made on the personal creature “comfort” derived from your choice. You can seek to maximize pleasure, or personal “good,” and your desire to avoid pain or discomfort in your life. Against this horizon of possibilities, ethical actions are a matter of personal, individual preferences, which are understandable to the extent that the individual making the choices personally benefits.
The last modality of values that Scheler describes ranges from the “holy” to the “unholy.” It is cast against the horizon of ultimate choices and a relationship to the “divine.” Feeling states range from “blissfulness” to “despair.” Choices are not necessarily governed by personal comfort or gain, but in fact are made independently of happiness and unhappiness. This horizon of possibilities seems to surpass, or even negate, personal considerations of self-preservation; you cast your life choices against the large screen of God.
In his book Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, Gilbert Meilaender introduces his work with a clear statement of ethical valuing. He enters the current moral debates with the horizon of God and our faithfulness in mind. In describing the “Christian Vision” that forms the foundation for his discussions of such issues as abortion, suicide, euthanasia, human experimentation and genetic therapy, Meilaender refers us to our Baptism and our life in the context of God’s faithfulness. The crucified Christ and the solidarity of God with those who suffer create a range of ethical possibilities that lift us beyond “comfort” and “individual preferences and rights” to consider room in our choosing for such an “uncomfortable” notion as suffering:
“Part of the pain of human life is that we sometimes cannot and at other times ought not do for others what they fervently desire. Believing in the incarnation that in Jesus God has stood with us as one of us, Christians must try to learn to stand with and beside those who suffer physically or emotionally. But that same understanding of an incarnation also teaches us that to make elimination of suffering our highest priority would be to conclude mistakenly that it can have no point or purpose in our lives.” p.8
As our technology and medical scientific research have advanced our knowledge of the very building blocks of life, our ethical choices have not become easier or clearer. The Human Genome Initiative, stem cell research, and the (no longer) science fiction concept of human cloning do not simplify or eradicate our ethical choices. To many, these developments aggravate the difficulty of choice and create a bog of unclear options. But choices will, nevertheless, be made. And those choices will occur against a horizon of valuing.
Using the horizon of Baptism and our life in the community of Christ’s Church for moral reflection, Meilaender discusses making difficult, even painful, ethical choices for a path that seems to move us contrary to the direction of our science and society. But he makes the argument for such possible choices without pitting “science against faith,” or reducing Christian choosing to a nostalgic desire for a primitive, eighteenth century sub-cult. As I read this work, I kept coming back to the Liturgy of Holy Baptism, when the parents and sponsors are asked to raise the newly baptized in the faith of the church so that “living in the covenant of their Baptism and in communion with the Church, they may lead godly lives until the day of Jesus Christ.”
The “godly life” is the horizon of values for this book of ethical discussion. You may not find all the answers, or agree with some answers proposed, but I would commend to you the horizon of value-modalities Meilaender so articulately describes for the ongoing ethical debate we will surely continue in our communities and lives.