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A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology by Vincent F. Hendricks, Stig Andur Pedersen, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis

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Chapter 68

Bioethics

PAUL B. THOMSON

The term “bioethics” is often credited to Van Rensalaer Potter (1911–2001), whose 1971 book Bioethics: Bridge to the Future argued that increases in technological power over the human body and the Earth’s natural processes make it necessary to develop new normative understandings of biology at organismal, regional and global scales. Potter linked advances in medical technology and nutrition to the rapid growth of human population, foreseeing the need to develop a new domain in ethics that would articulate a conception of ethical responsibility for reproductive processes at a global scale. Potter’s conception of bioethics was developed in the context of already thriving debates on population and world hunger in which Garrett Hardin (1915–2003), Paul R. Ehrlich (b. 1938) and Joseph Fletcher (1905–91) were prominent figures. Hardin and Ehrlich took an ecological perspective on population growth, stressing the notion of carrying capacity (the number of individuals in a given species that could be supported by a given region). They noted a tendency for many species to enjoy temporary surges in population that would exceed long-term carrying capacity, leading eventually to widespread diebacks.

The nexus between technology and ethics in these debates is rooted in the views of nineteenth-century philosopher Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), who postulated the law that population would naturally increase at a geometric rate, while technology would increase ...

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