On the relationship between bioethics and biopolitics

Darryl Gunson

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This paper discusses the conceptual and practical relationship between bioethics and biopolitics. The paper starts with reference to Lemke’s claim that bioethics (as a field, compared to biopolitics) narrowed the discussions on life and politics to a discussion on values. Then, it proceeds by identifying certain ideal-types about the nature of bioethics which, it is argued, illustrate two ends of the spectrum upon which discussions of the field of bioethics occupy. They are constructed according to two criteria: the first concerns the scope of bioethics, which includes the aims of bioethics and its problems; the second involves the details of the method(s) of bioethics including the use of empirical data. With respect to the scope of bioethics, two models are discussed which offer a broader and a narrower focus for bioethics. The first suggests that bioethics is, or should be, a global undertaking, with a broader and renewed focus on global justice, basic health needs, and our relation to the environment. The second suggests that bioethics is primarily concerned with a ‘northern’ agenda, which focuses on the problems with healthcare systems and issues thrown up by advanced biotechnology. With respect to methods, the idea of bioethics as a purely, or primarily, philosophical enterprise is discussed and a more interdisciplinary model is sketched. These versions of bioethics are used as the basis for a comparison with biopolitics.

The paper continues by examining some prominent (although by no means all) characterisations of biopolitics and compares them with the bioethical models. ‘Biopolitics’ is used to refer to many issues that range from bioterrorism and security issues to biotechnological developments and the ethical issues that arise from these, and from the nature of state control and surveillance over its citizens, to a concern with the rise of social philosophies such as neo-liberalism. One possible interpretation of the relationship between bioethics and biopolitics is that they cover much the same ground, but that somehow biopolitics is broader and deeper, focusing on the wider political context of policy and regulation, and that this is not part of the remit of bioethics. However, it is argued in this paper that this has some plausibility only if we adopt an unnecessarily narrow definition of bioethics in the first place. Once we shift our focus in bioethics to appreciate the necessity for broadening our horizons – perhaps to a ‘global bioethics’ – and once we understand the necessity for empirical research from all relevant sciences, we begin to see that bioethics does have a legitimate concern with the type of questions and analyses hitherto associated with the field of biopolitics.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBioethics and Biopolitics
EditorsPéter Kakuk
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-66249-7
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-66247-3
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Oct 2017

Publication series

NameAdvancing Global Bioethics
ISSN (Print)2212-652X
ISSN (Electronic)2212-6538


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