Care for Language: Etymology as a Continental Argument in Bioethics

Care for Language: Etymology as a Continental Argument in Bioethics

Original research

Open Access. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. Published online 1 October 2021.

Hub Zwart

Abstract: Emphasizing the importance of language is a key characteristic of philosophical reflection in general and of bioethics in particular. Rather than trying to eliminate the historicity and ambiguity of language, a continental approach to bioethics will make conscious use of it, for instance by closely studying the history of the key terms we employ in bioethical debates. Continental bioethics entails a focus on the historical vicissitudes of the key signifiers of the bioethical vocabulary, urging us to study the history of terms such as “bioethics,” “autonomy,” “privacy,” and “consensus.” Instead of trying to define such terms as clearly and unequivocally as possible, a continental approach rather requires us to take a step backwards, tracing the historical backdrop of the words currently in vogue. By comparing the original meanings of terms with their current meanings, and by considering important moments of transition in their history, obfuscated dimensions of meaning can be retrieved. Thus, notwithstanding a number of methodological challenges involved in etymological exercises, they may foster moral articulacy and enhance our ability to come to terms with moral dilemmas we are facing.

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