Bioethics and Human Rights

Faunce TA, 'Bioethics and Human Rights' ch 29 in H.A.M.J. ten Have, B. Gordijn (eds.), Handbook of Global Bioethics (2014) p 467

18 Pages Posted: 27 May 2014

Date Written: May 26, 2014


This chapter discusses the normative origins of bioethics and human rights. The view presented here is that the normative systems of bioethics and human rights are idealist in that they attempt to shape human conduct according to principles derived (like our understandings of time and space) a priori so that true statements are capable of being made about them that do not necessarily correlate with common experience. This chapter then analyzes the intersections of bioethics and human rights in the context of their responding to two great contemporary challenges: the policy influence of supranational corporations and their capacity to relate to the emerging preeminent social virtue of environmental sustainability.

Particular challenges created for bioethics and human rights by global governance via supranational corporations include protecting in priority to shareholder profits the interests and welfare of the million or so women and girls under 18 trafficked yearly for prostitution, 10 million refugees, or 5 million internally displaced persons; the victims of any one of the 35 or so wars currently raging across the earth, of state-promoted torture, or rape in the guise of “ethnic cleansing”; or any of the 250 million children exploited for labor, sexual gratification, or as soldiers, as well as the 1.2 billion people living in severe poverty, without adequate obstetric care, food, safe water, or sanitation.

One specific outcome of such normative intersections could be provisions supporting science-based assessment of the cost-effectiveness of such new technologies before government subsidy. Another might involve a commitment to withdraw investor-state dispute settlement rights once a nation has achieved a specific score on a rule of law index. Yet another might be a provision that supranational corporations, as a legal requirement of their registration, be in-effect ‘married’ through a requirement to undertake obligations to global public goods (annually selected by a regulatory authority) and restrain salaries for chief executives within a set proportion of those of political leaders. Sustainable government support for new renewable energy options like solar fuels could derive from a tax on global financial transactions. The treaty creating such a Tobin tax could include provisions preventing fraud through financial incentives to informants and their lawyers on the model False Claims Act. It is an act profoundly coherent with bioethics and human rights to imagine a world where every road, building and vehicle is “doing” photosynthesis more efficiently than plants and where each household could generate its own basic carbohydrate food and ammonia fuel for cooking, heat, and light simply and cheaply from a roof unit that required as inputs only photons, water, atmospheric nitrogen and and carbon dioxide. It is also ethical to consider the pressure that thereby would be taken off the natural environment to provide land for crops or sources of fuel.

We have seen that there are now two powerful normative systems intersecting (and not necessarily in the public or environmental interest) with bioethics and human rights – domestic law (constitutional, judge made, as well as legislative) and international trade and investment law. The idea has been advanced that bioethics could be evolving toward justiciable and enforceable international human rights as part of a functional global social contract and this implies a combination of both self-assurance about the latters regulatory and symbolic importance, as well as mistrust of governments to otherwise uphold the principles and virtues that sustain them.

The conceptual heart of any global social contract can no longer be considered to involve contractual-type guarantees involving rules about when any one person’s freedom can be interfered with by another’s, when the aims of the state should not unduly infringe those of its citizens and guarantees of basic social, cultural, and economic support. The obligations of supranational corporations and the capacity of citizens and the environment to be protected from them must also be part of a hypothetical global social contract and the national constitutional norms derived from it.

Both bioethics and human rights carry the promise of enlarging the objects of human sympathy and so the applicable range of principles and rules available to decision-makers. One such emerging social virtue is “environmental sustainability” and it is critical for the survival of our civilization and our planet that it takes its place alongside justice, equity, and respect for human dignity in the normative foundations of bioethics and human rights. Global artificial photosynthesis may emerge as the technology best able to shape the moral revolution that places environmental sustainability at the heart of the world’s governance arrangements.

Keywords: Bioethics, human rights, corporate globalisation, trade and investment law, environmental sustainability, global artificial photosynthesis, Kant, Spinoza, UNESCO, medical ethics

JEL Classification: I18, D63, F13, F23, G28, H41

Suggested Citation

Faunce, Thomas Alured, Bioethics and Human Rights (May 26, 2014). Faunce TA, 'Bioethics and Human Rights' ch 29 in H.A.M.J. ten Have, B. Gordijn (eds.), Handbook of Global Bioethics (2014) p 467. Available at SSRN:

Thomas Alured Faunce (Contact Author)

Australian National University ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200
61 2 61253563 (Phone)

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics