Teaching old dogs new tricks: the role of analogies in bioethical analysis and argumentation concerning new technologies

Theor Med Bioeth. 2006;27(5):397-413. doi: 10.1007/s11017-006-9018-5. Epub 2006 Oct 27.


New medical technologies provide us with new possibilities in health care and health care research. Depending on their degree of novelty, they may as well present us with a whole range of unforeseen normative challenges. Partly, this is due to a lack of appropriate norms to perceive and handle new technologies. This article investigates our ways of establishing such norms. We argue that in this respect analogies have at least two normative functions: they inform both our understanding and our conduct. Furthermore, as these functions are intertwined and can blur moral debates, a functional investigation of analogies can be a fruitful part of ethical analysis. We argue that although analogies can be conservative; because they bring old concepts to bear upon new ones, there are at least three ways in which they can be creative. First, understandings of new technologies are quite different from the analogies that established them, and come to be analogies themselves. That is, the concepts may turn out to be quite different from the analogies that established them. Second, analogies transpose similarities from one area into another, where they previously had no bearing. Third, analogies tend to have a figurative function, bringing in something new and different from the content of the analogies. We use research-biobanking as a practical example in our investigations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bioethical Issues
  • Biotechnology / ethics*
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Humans
  • Symbolism
  • Tissue Banks / ethics*