Bioethics-workers of all countries: Unite!

Building EUrope by its values

by Greg Becker

We’re one, but we’re not the same
– Johnny Cash – One
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
But I’m doing the best that I can
– Willie Nelson – It´s hard to be humble

Over the past decades,
not only but mainly from politics, the European public has heard so often that the inner thread that keeps together the idea of United Europe consists of shared values and virtues – keeping together not only the member States of the EU – but the entire continent.

Sometimes one cannot help feeling that this is rather a political incantation or wishful thinking but the main formula expressing the real-existing status quo, or the perfect analysis of the indivisible European soul.

The talks about common shared virtues and values may appear too lofty to be accepted as the cement, holding Europe together. Or: Maybe too many struggles within the EU – sometimes over cheese, sometimes over administrative reforms or backroom deals on positions – have retained facts in the memory of the “public mind”, covering only too well the fact that the Union indeed consists of “brothers not in blood, but in bond”: in moral bond.

Can the truth of this claim, to be brothers in bond, be proven?

Yes, it can.

The Experiment

If you put together 27 (even 28!1) specialists for the evaluation of ethical implications of particular R&D in Life Sciences, you would find out that independently from their different countries of origin, national history and traditions, different mentality and maybe even faith, they would be more than less easily capable of compromising on a shared verdict on the issue.

That ethics-scenario is no ad-hoc invention, it already takes place regularly, e.g. in the frame of ethics evaluation of European grant proposals, and: It works!

The more it is amazing that beyond the call from Brussels for such boards, regular interaction and permanent cooperation of EUropean bioethics units keep indeed rare.

That is not just a pity but a missed opportunity for European bioethics and -unification.

Cooperation serves the idea AND each the single bioethics unit

It is apparent and quite natural that in our time of an almost unbelievably rapid development in Life Sciences, bioethics in general gains in importance: the more progression in Life Science the more ethical implications to evaluate and to find solutions for.

Permanent cross-border cooperation of bioethics units within Europe would not only support the permanent necessity of improving competences of single, often pretty small bioethics units but it may make it possible to develop much broader operational frameworks on EUropean levels, doing a better and broader job in bioethics.

Bioethics at the frontlines

In addition to the growing number of national ethics committees, ethics groups and think tanks on higher political levels, in Europe there are a few EUropean bioethics units working “on the front” of medicine and biotechnology: within Life Sciences and medicine, in labs and on hospital wards.

These bioethics-workers are often underestimated, for they deal neither with far reaching metaphysical analyses of ethical issues nor do they consult important law makers and world leaders. They usually educate and qualify students and researchers, and they serve with practical counsel on procedures and settings in research facilities and hospitals. They provide support where due to the work with e.g. animals and patients, ethics needs to give answers at once.

Due to the main task of bioethics – to answer the question “What shall we do?” and then to initiate action, bioethics as the practical management of ethics must not be underestimated – alas there are particular challenges coming along with it, not too often mastered, yet:

Capacity building in bioethics

Capacity building in bioethics ensures a sustainable development in Life Sciences by integration of the specialists for Life Sciences with scientific and ethics competences.

Firstly, technical expertise and know-how is essential to understand problems in Life Sciences and to give good and realistic ethical counsel. Secondly, standing side by side with researchers and medics makes bioethics a directly responsible confederate of Life Sciences – what is essential for the credibility of bioethics. Thirdly, the transfer of ethical competences to Life Scientists improves the quality of work in Life Sciences.

Finally, the integrative momentum of bioethics in Life Sciences as such is decisive for the appropriateness of ethical measures to take. Ethical counsel from the outside of Life Sciences can hardly achieve that.

The request for cooperation

Realising the idea of Integrated Bioethics is still a complex enterprise, and it is not yet fully accepted in Life Science or in biomedical companies.

The royal route leading to the establishment of this reasonable model of bioethics is building up a broad and European network of bioethics units, working together, supporting each other, and sharing expertise and experiences.

Conclusions – Good is as good does

Sharing common values in EUrope does not necessarily make 27 member States to be “the same” – and who would want that? There are indeed differences between European peoples and societies, including the interpretation of values.

The decisive detail is, however, that in 27 countries, the same values may be differently interpreted and ordered in rankings of importance that may be also different; but the values themselves? They are not. They are indeed the very same ones.

Not just metaphorically, these differences make us NOT the same, but it still makes us one – viz.: One EUrope.

As concerning any idea about reality, also for the one dealing with EUrope as the Union of common shared values, the proof for its truth is easy: Reality must show that the idea is indeed accurate. Just repeating the mantra of EUrope sharing common values does not make it true. As a hollow formula it is even unhumble, arrogant and covers the fact that still a lot of work is necessary to unveil that truth.

Bioethics coming together in EUrope could make a difference, and the one motto that is essential for realising both – a good EUrope of values – and good bioethics that makes sense – is incredibly simple:

Don´t talk it, do it!


1 This would even work out, adding specialists from currently abandoned EU-membership candidates – and even with US-Americans and Russians. Generally, of course in such an ethics-frame compromising is possible also in intercultural settings– but it is undoubtfully extremely easy within a board of Europeans.

We are grateful to Dr. Greg Becker for kindly providing the original article.

1994 M.A. Philosophy/Philology, RUB/Germany
1996 Ph.D. Philosophy, RUB/Germany
Since 2007 Dr. Becker is the Head of the group for bio-ethics in life sciences (gbls), Jagiellonian University Cracow, Poland
His current Project concerns the integration of bio-ethics in studies and research in the fields of biotechnology, biophysics, biochemistry and medicine.
The motto of his group is Uva uvam videndo varia fit (one grape causes the other grape to ripen)

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Willis Jenkins. The future of ethics.
Georgetown University Press 2013

Noëlle Lenoir. Biotechnology, Bioethics and Law: Europe’s 21st Century Challenge.
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Vol.69, No.1 (Jan, 2006). PP1-6

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