Individual good and common good: a communitarian approach to bioethics

Perspect Biol Med. 2003 Fall;46(4):496-507. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2003.0083.


The field of bioethics emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among its early issues were the protection of human research subjects, the rights of patients, abortion, and reproductive issues. Partly as a reflection of the times, and of those issues, the field became focused on autonomy and individual rights, and liberal individualism came to be the dominant ideology in the 1980s and 1990s. Communitarianism, as an alternative ideology focused more on the common good and the public interest than on autonomy, was a neglected approach. But many bioethical issues can not reasonably be reduced to questions of individualism and choice only. Issues of genetics and reproduction will of necessity touch on the society as a whole, its values, and its social institutions. Serious ethical analysis must take the social implications seriously and not simply assume that they should be left to autonomous choices of individuals. Human beings are social animals and our nature is distorted if we think of ourselves only as co-existing social atoms. Various approaches to communitarianism are outlined, and the question of the relationship between individual good and common good is confronted.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethical Issues*
  • Bioethics / trends*
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Principle-Based Ethics*
  • Social Justice*
  • Social Responsibility*
  • Social Values