Review of Harron, Burnside, and Beauchamp’s Health and Human Values

 by John M. Frame,

Associate Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology,

Westminster Theological Seminary in California.


Health and Human Values, by Frank Harron, John Burnside, M. D. and Tom Beauchamp. Yale University Press, New Haven and London (1983), 196 pp. No price listed. LEADER’S MANUAL (for discussion groups) also available, from Vail-Ballou Press,Binghamton, N. Y. 38pp.



This book is a very useful survey of the issues in modern medical ethics. It contains discussions of abortion, euthanasia, the meaning of death, organ transplants, informed consent, the role of government in health care, genetic engineering. Introducing the book (and appearing throughout) is material dealing with ethical philosophy: deontologism (rule-ethics), utilitarianism (ethics based on judgments concerning the consequences of actions- “the greatest good for the greatest number”), and various modifications and combinations of these.

There are some difficult discussions here, but the format generally maintains the reader’s interest. Topics are usually introduced with case studies presenting “moral dilemmas”: e.g., should Joseph Saikewicz, a sixty-seven year old man with a mental age of two years, eight months, be given painful treatments for an incurable, terminal leukemia, even though he would be utterly incapable of understanding the purpose of this pain (p. 1)? The book presents arguments on various sides of the issues. Generally the editors try not to take positions, though at points their (liberal) bias is evident (as in the description of the abortion readings in the Leader’s Manual, p. 5). The editors outline the issues, then include brief readings from various viewpoints. There are study questions, bibliographies, suggested audio-visual materials.

Occasionally there is some reference to theology, as in the chapter on the definition of death. Generally, however, this is a secular book. Despite its being funded by a grant from the United Presbyterian Church, USA (now PCUSA), there is nothing distinctively Christian about its contents. There is no Scripture exegesis, nor even the suggestion that some readers might wish to be governed by God’s Word rather than by secular philosophical ethics.

The book is useful, however, in helping us sharpen our minds about the difficult issues. It is certainly true that there are “gray areas” in ethics, areas where it is difficult to be dogmatic. But is this the best way to teach ethics? Some exposure to material like this is necessary, I think. But if the teacher’s goal is to help students become more ethical, more just and merciful in their decisions, then in my view it is counter-productive to spend the bulk of our time on this sort of thing. It is better, rather, to immerse ourselves in Scripture-to learn from God those ethical principles that are not gray, not negotiable. For that purpose, there are many fine books available. The present volume is not among them.