Bioethics: The Basics

Bioethics: The Basics

By Alastair Campbell
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2013
RRP: £12.99
ISBN 978–0415504089

Reviewed by Anna Westin

A version of this book review was first published in “The New Bioethics: A multidisciplinary journal of biotechnology and the body”.

With the relatively recent emergence of the field of bioethics has come a great plethora of books on the subject. Because of the complexity of the subject, many unfamiliar with its multi–faceted character may have difficulty initially finding a course on its ever–changing waters. In these instances, books like Alastair Campbell’s Bioethics: The Basics provide a sound foundational introduction on which to begin one’s own bioethical exploration.

Campbell is a well respected author and prolific writer on bioethical issues with more than 30 books and book chapters as well as dictionary entries to his name; and many more articles in refereed journals. His impressive list of publications reflects his equally impressive professional career. Prof Campbell is currently Director of Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore. Prior to this, he was Professor of Ethics in Medicine in the Medical School of the University of Bristol and Director of its Centre for Ethics in Medicine. Within the arenas of government and policy development he is also active, serving as a member of the Bioethics Advisory Committee to the Singapore Government, of the National Medical Ethics Committee of the Ministry of Health. He is also a Board Member of the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore and National Medical Research Council. Given Campbell’s strong CV, Bioethics promises to provide an introduction to the subject that grounds the theory in practical application.

Readers may initially find themselves challenged by the way in which Campbell writes. His informal style may not be quintessentially ‘academic’ as such, but it carries the material with clarity and ease. As an self–described introduction, Bioethics may be best suited for one who has little background in the subject, tackling the breadth of the field without penetrating too deeply into any one area. The book covers a large amount of content, perhaps sometimes a bit too ambitiously. After reading the initial chapters on moral theory and perspectives, the reader may need a break before delving into a seemingly separate three chapters on clinical ethics, research and justice. That being said, the book does accomplish what it sets out to do from the start— to ‘speak to the non–expert in the field’, and to ‘describe the complexities of the subject in an accessible style’ (Campbell 2013:ix). For such reasons, I would suggest that this book is a good starting block for the ‘new bioethicist’. However, I do believe that there are specific instances in the book that require further discussion.

Campbell begins the book by giving a historical overview of the development of bioethics as a serious discipline in western culture. He points to the atrocities of World War II that created the platform of discussion to propel a movement of ethical examination within the field of medicine. Campbell suggests that the field has now ‘come of age’ (8). But while I think that Campbell’s historical narrative shows the initial emergence of bioethics, I would hesitate to state that the field has now come into a full sense of self. Still we are faced with the flux of a field that does not fully know itself. Still we are found in the throes of a tumultuous adolescence heated by popular opinion, media hype and famous court rulings. I would suggest that, though we are moving forward into a serious discipline propelled by robust discussion, we still find ourselves challenged by the youthfulness of the movement. As such, our eyes must constantly be open, our minds alert as we struggle to engage these topics with a wisdom that stretches beyond the less than a century of study.

Aside from this rather personal reservation with regards to the maturity of the discipline, I would suggest that Campbell’s book provides a significant contribution to bioethical scholasticism. In general, Campbell is able to keep the clear and objective perspective that is so crucial for foundational texts in this area. However, there are specific instances in the text that I would suggest could be re–worked in a manner to ensure more objectivity, especially in his discussion on religious ‘dogmatism’ (53), the ‘vicious’ association between perspectives on the bodily form and moral worth (53), and abortion. In the section on the beginning of life I wish to have seen a more robust discussion of sexual ethics in general, before embarking on the dissection of its subtopics. I would also suggest that due to the contemporary nature of this subject, some discussion of nanotechnology ought to have been present in the chapter to ensure a full breadth of discussion.

Campbell gives substantial space to the discussion of religious perspectives in bioethics and handles the content with a seriousness and thoughtfulness that can often be lacking in general bioethical overviews. Though the overview of each religion is sound, I would suggest a greater discussion referencing the implication of these perspectives on specific bioethical topics. It is true that the breadth of perspectives within each religion makes unanimity sometimes both naive and forced. However, I think that Campbell would do well to discuss these further (for example, the relation between Jewish theology and human dignity, the Buddhist concept of no–harm, and the Christian understanding of human nature), though any extended anthropological ontology may extend beyond the primary purposes of this book.

By the end of the book, the reader may find themselves struggling to order the many strands of this multi–faceted conversation. It is, however, this great breadth that is simultaneously Campbell’s unique strength. Bioethics: The Basics does indeed explore the plethora of bioethical basics. But it also seriously considers topics that are often overlooked in introductory texts. Campbell highlights the complexity of mental health ethics and the saliency and seriousness of global justice theory. He gives place for religious perspectives and research ethics. And while there may be areas that I found challenging within these topics, the solidity of the structure and the simple fact that these perspectives are being presented in the overview gives this book a commendable place among the many introductions to bioethics.



Anna Westin is a PhD student at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham.



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