Land-grant ideology, the Wisconsin idea, and the foundations of Van Rensselaer Potter's bioethics
Doris, Margaret E.
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In this dissertation I argue that properly situating Van Rensselaer Potter's bioethics makes it newly available to those seeking an alternative conceptual framework for global bioethics discourse. Locating Potter in the heretofore unappreciated context of the land-grant college ideology (evinced by those institutions established by the 1862 federal Morrill Act with a charge to democratize higher education and apply knowledge in the best interests of the public) and the Wisconsin Idea (a still–extant Progressive – era policy of applying university research to social legislation) not only illuminates its distinctive features but renders transparent its previously opaque epistemic culture. I outline how American bioethics as it is commonly understood took form at Georgetown University in the early 1970s with a mandate to consider the impact of new medical technologies on society, particularly in relation to reproductive and human fetal tissue research. This work yielded a vision that became known as principlism, the now-dominant form of Western bioethical discourse. I look at the various criticisms of principlism, as well as the inability of its critics to discard the principles framework. I then contrast principlism with the distinctly different understanding of bioethics that was offered in 1970 by Van Rensselaer Potter when he coined the word "bioethics." I discuss how, when Potter first began to speak of bioethics, he envisioned a "bridge to the future, " a union of science and the humanities that would foster cross–disciplinary thinking in anticipation of, and in the hope of averting, a worsening ecological crisis and its resultant negative impact on human health and well–being. The response to threats posed by technology — "dangerous knowledge" — was not to limit knowledge, but to respond with more knowledge, with the kind of contextual and moral vision that only transdisciplinary knowledge could provide. While Potter originally envisioned this work as a specific obligation of scientists, he gradually came to understand it as a social activity, a shift in communal perceptions and obligations. Finally, I suggest that Potter's bioethics has tremendous potential for redeeming bioethics and offers an alternative vision that is truly redemptive.