Bioethics is the application of ethics to the field of life sciences and health—it determines what constitutes an ethical approach in the world of clinical trials and research on hot button issues like eugenics, gene-editing, and the right to die.  Although medical ethics is often simplified into four clearly defined categories, including beneficence, non-malfeasance, autonomy, and justice, these guiding principles begin to break down after a certain point, and it becomes quickly complicated to determine what constitutes a moral versus an immoral path.  

A Quick Rundown of Bioethics

The modern version of bioethics came out of the World Wars as a product of the Nuremberg Principles.  The Nuremberg Principles were developed as a consequence of the trial of Nazi party members in an effort to establish what constituted a war crime.  Within Nazi Germany, Nazis undertook various unethical experiments using persecuted people such as the Poles, the Jews, and the Gypsies as subjects.  These groups of people were forced into various experiments involving the injection of ink into their eyes, as well as inducing hypothermia by putting them into freezing cold water.  Although these tests led to some valuable scientific research, including the development of life vests, it remains unclear whether or not society should be able to use these benefits because the experiments carried out by the Nazis were so flagrantly exploitative.

Another component of bioethics comes from the Belmont principles, which are comprised of four main pillars. The first component involves beneficence, which deals with the benefits that a potential patient would receive as a result of the experiment or medical trial.  The other three pillars involve non-malfeasance, or the promise to do no harm to a patient, as well as autonomy and justice. Autonomy and justice both deal with the patient’s ability to choose whether to participate as well as ensuring that studies are conducted fairly and equally without exploiting the research participants. 

Blurred Lines

Bioethics also involves the idea of informed consent, which is the ability of participants to choose whether or not they want to be a part of a given study given potential risks and benefits.  This concept, while it seems relatively straightforward, becomes murky when you consider specific cases. For example, take a thought experiment involving prisoners: if prisoners were offered a reduction in the length of their sentence for every clinical trial that they participated in, would their decision to partake in the trial still remain autonomous?  This remains unclear because the prisoners are not free, and therefore their decision to participate does not seem like an autonomous choice. There is also a blurred line that exists between blackmail and autonomy. This grey area can be seen in the case of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who was told by the National Enquirer that they would release his nude photos unless he rescinded his stance on certain issues.  This statement could either be interpreted as an offer for settlement, such as lawyers would make to one another, or it could be viewed as blackmail. Blackmailing would clearly be considered a crime, however, when a similar situation is looked at from a legal perspective, it would look more like an offer of settlement, and would therefore be seen as ethical.  The field of digital studies also involves some morally-questionable undertakings as companies like Facebook and OkCupid randomly test their users and publish their results. Often, the users that are used in these studies are not consulted about whether they wish to participate, which raises the question: should these tests require informed consent? This ethical grey area presents some very challenging questions in the field of bioethics as it becomes increasingly harder to distinguish what is moral and immoral in the realm of science.