Bioethics is a broad term used to refer to the ways we assign value to living organisms (human or otherwise). Most commonly used in medical institutions, the term bioethics is gaining wider usage outside of hospitals and medical schools. In particular, bioethical concerns in the humanities and social sciences often revolve around disability studies, animal studies, ecocriticism, and the various ways medical and biological discourses are intimately connected to culture.
In this sense, we might think of bioethics as an important link between the humanities and sciences, one that combines central topics in science and medicine with the major methodologies and critical theories most closely associated with the humanities. In fields such as disability studies and animal studies, many scholars insist on ethical approaches that have little to do with the hospital review boards that are most commonly signified by the word “bioethics.” For instance, scholars in recent years have written about how we represent physical disability in popular literature and culture, the commonplace philosophical assumptions that reinforce the human-animal divide, or the ways environmental science is often subject to popular cultural trends.
Science and Culture
There are sometimes arbitrary distinctions between science and culture, many of which concern the methods and approaches used by various scholars. A biologist and a philosopher might both try to answer the question of what it means to be human, but the former will likely consider the nature of the body or physical evolution while the latter might look at how definitions of the human change over historical periods. Neither is “more right” than the other; instead, what distinguishes the two is largely due to their approach.
When we consider bioethics in literary and cultural studies, we might keep the above example in mind. If we think about how to define “disability,” for instance, a medical practitioner will likely be able to develop a very specific definition; however, literary scholars such as Lennard Davis—to name one among many—will show that “disability” is a relatively new concept, one intimately related to the rise of “normalcy” and the novel in the nineteenth century. (For more information, see Davis’s Enforcing Normalcy.)
The same might be said of animal studies or environmental studies; scientists are hard at work investigating how certain animals feel pain, while others are developing objective methods for showing the devastating effects of the current climate crisis. However, many humanities scholars are aware that when discussing animal experience, we need to investigate the ways language and metaphor often limit our understanding. Or, in the context of climate change, we should consider the rhetorical strategies needed to convince people that we should act now to enact public policy. Facts and figures are important, but many people don’t make decisions based on matters of fact—that’s where rhetorical argumentation (a field of focus in English) becomes an important skill to leverage.
To suggest that science and the humanities (i.e., culture) are mutually exclusive is to ignore the ways discourse operates across disciplinary boundaries. And, the humanities scholar who ignores science or the scientist who ignores the humanities are less likely to make valuable contributions to our society.
Bioethics in the Text: Jekyll and Hyde
So where does ethics come into play? Recent trends in literary and cultural studies have shifted focus to questions of the body as well as questions of ethics (sometimes called “the ethical turn”). Philosophers such as Martha Nussabaum, in Love’s Knowledge, have reinforced the idea that literature is a valuable site through which we can frame our ethical queries. Literature shows us the real-world complexities of life through which we can raise questions about ethics, an approach that is much more helpful than oversimplified thought-experiments. And, considering the impact of authors such as Judith Butler—who revolutionized definitions of gender and performativity with books like Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter—we now know that bodies are never just there, that they are instead embedded in discourse.
When considering bioethics in literary texts, we might look to Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (See my essay on medical quackery and Stevenson’s book here.) RLS’s book is commonly taught as an allegory for good and evil–the idea is that we all have this struggle between the two within us. While this is an easy interpretation to digest for most high schoolers, it’s also one that doesn’t address the historical context of the book. And, the good/evil reading is also a bit oversimplified; Stevenson’s writing is much too nuanced for such a cut-and-dry dichotomy.
Stevenson wrote the novella following a series of medical and pharmaceutical acts in the late nineteenth century, and many of the book’s themes reflect a growing ambivalence toward medical institutionalization. For example, Jekyll doesn’t become evil after ingesting his concoction; instead, he seeks an “avatar” to hide his unsavory tendencies from the start. And, Jekyll never actually knows how he created the drug that transformed him into Hyde—it’s implied that it is actually the result of a contaminated shipment of salts. So, the expert doctor in this book is really more of an evil quack.
While there is some deeply harmful skepticism toward medical professionals today (most of which is the result of outlandish conspiracy theories), what Stevenson reveals in Jekyll and Hyde is that mistrust in medical expertise has been around for years. Many medical and pharmaceutical regulations in Britain in the nineteenth century were partly the result of professional spats and political debates (consider, for instance, the establishment of the Pharmaceutical Society in Britain to displace the authority of apothecaries, or the delayed outlawing of opium as a ‘schedule one’ poison), enacting a disciplinary regime that exists to this day. Stevenson exaggerates the mistrust between the public and medical institutions in Jekyll and Hyde, but what he also points to is a growing rift between science and the humanities.
A “bioethical” approach to Stevenson’s iconic story—a novella that’s now been adapted countless times—helps to foreground the ways in which science and the humanities are deeply interconnected. Stevenson traces a growing ambivalence toward medical professionals in the late nineteenth century following a string of medical laws, raising important questions about the power dynamics that often exist between the patient and doctor, between medical institutions and the general public. What we can learn from Stevenson’s book is the ways public perception toward science and medicine is shaped, as well as the ways in which language and law in turn configure science and medicine.
Stevenson is at times vague about the specific medical and pharmaceutical practices of Dr. Jekyll, but what The Strange Case does emphasize is the need for ethical thought in medical and scientific practice. Jekyll’s research is notoriously self-serving; while Hyde is most clearly the villain, Jekyll isn’t much better. Stevenson doesn’t necessarily propose a clear ethical framework in the language of philosophy (e.g., deontology, virtue epistemology, normative ethics, utilitarianism), but what he does provide is a critique of medicine that’s been divorced from humanistic inquiry.