Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 169–176 | Cite as

Questioning Engelhardt’s assumptions in Bioethics and Secular Humanism

  • Shahram Ahmadi Nasab Emran
Scientific Contribution


In Bioethics and Secular Humanism: The Search for a Common Morality, Tristram Engelhardt examines various possibilities of finding common ground for moral discourse among people from different traditions and concludes their futility. In this paper I will argue that many of the assumptions on which Engelhardt bases his conclusion about the impossibility of a content-full secular bioethics are problematic. By starting with the notion of moral strangers, there is no possibility, by definition, for a content-full moral discourse among moral strangers. It means that there is circularity in starting the inquiry with a definition of moral strangers, which implies that they do not share enough moral background or commitment to an authority to allow for reaching a moral agreement, and concluding that content-full morality is impossible among moral strangers. I argue that assuming traditions as solid and immutable structures that insulate people across their boundaries is problematic. Another questionable assumption in Engelhardt’s work is the idea that religious and philosophical traditions provide content-full moralities. As the cardinal assumption in Engelhardt’s review of the various alternatives for a content-full moral discourse among moral strangers, I analyze his foundationalist account of moral reasoning and knowledge and indicate the possibility of other ways of moral knowledge, besides the foundationalist one. Then, I examine Engelhardt’s view concerning the futility of attempts at justifying a content-full secular bioethics, and indicate how the assumptions have shaped Engelhardt’s critique of the alternatives for the possibility of content-full secular bioethics.


Bioethics Common morality Secular humanism Engelhardt Religious traditions Content-full morality Moral strangers Moral disagreement Foundationalism 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Salus CenterSt. LouisUSA

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