Normative ethics – Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

A/Prof. Paul Macneill1

1University Of Sydney, Sydney Health Ethics, SYDNEY, Australia

If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is.

Peggy Lee

Peggy’s many disappointments included losing her home, losing love, the emptiness of the circus. If that’s all there is then, “Let’s break out the booze.” My disappointment is the loss of purpose in ethics. If normative ethics is all there is dear friends, then “Let’s break out the booze.”

In this paper I will contest the certainty ‘that bioethics is predominantly normative ethics.’ But, before we ‘break out the booze’ let’s explore, together, the possibility of purpose in ethics. In this postmodern age, talk of purpose and ultimate ends, is much denigrated. Nevertheless, I will persist with the notion that there is something more than ‘normative ethics’—and claim this ‘something more’ as a possibility that makes sense of ethics itself. My claim is that, in health care practice and in bioethics, we are aiming for some-thing—which of course is not a ‘thing.’ The Greeks called it telos. The OED defines telos as ‘end, purpose, ultimate object or aim.’

Defined in that way, as an achievable finished state, an end point, telos is eminently suspect. I will propose however, that telos is not an end point, but a process. A process of reaching for an ideal. A verb, rather than a noun. And if we do glimpse the goal we are striving for, we may not be able to specify it—at least in words. This is an art, beyond science. This is ethics understood as reaching for something—something we experience as authentic, true, extra-ordinary, and way beyond norms.

After a glimpse of that kind, we will have every reason to

“keep dancing … break out the booze, and have a ball.


Paul Macneill MA, LLB,  PhD

Paul was previously President of the Australasian Bioethics Association (a fore-runner to the AABHL); President and organiser of the 7th World Congress of Bioethics (Sydney); and is Co-ordinator of the Arts Bioethics Network within the International Association of Bioethics.

His critique of the narrowness of ethics and bioethics has led him to exploring ethics as an aesthetic, and explorations of ethics from comparative perspectives (esp Indian/Yoga perspectives).

His publications including Ethics and the Arts (Springer: 2014); ‘Balancing bioethics by sensing the aesthetic’ (Bioethics 2017); ‘The arts and medicine: a challenging relationship (Medical Humanities 2011); and ‘Art and bioethics: shifts in understanding across genres’ (Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 2011). He has presented many keynote addresses on bioethics in international bioethics conferences: most recently at the World Congress of Bioethics in Edinburgh (2016).

He is currently working on two books (provisionally) titled: ‘Philosophy and Ethics—East and West’; and ‘The Over-valued Idea’ (a critique of ethics and post-‘Enlightenment’ rationality).

Paul has taught ethics, law and professionalism for many years: in the UNSW Medical Faculty; Sydney Medical School; and the University of Singapore, School of Medicine.

About the Association

The Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) was formed in 2009.

It encourages open discussion and debate on a range of bioethical issues, providing a place where people can ask difficult questions about ideas and practices associated with health and illness, biomedical research and human values.

The AABHL seeks to foster a distinctive Australasian voice in bioethics, and provide opportunities for international engagement through its membership, journal and conferences.

Members come from all the contributing humanities, social science and science disciplines that make up contemporary bioethics.

Many members have cross-disciplinary interests and all seek to broaden the dialogues in which all members of the wider community ultimately have an interest.

The AABHL is a supportive, creative and challenging community that provides a rich source of continuing academic refreshment and renewal.

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