AT 01_At the origins of bioethics from Potter`s

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AT 01_At the origins of bioethics from Potter`s
At the origins of bioethics: from Potter's bioethical
creed to Fritz Jahr's bioethical imperative
This article presents the historical origins of bioethics from the work of Van Rensselaer Potter and Fritz Jahr
who coined into two distinct moments the expression Bioethics. This article displays the brief history of the
latter author and analyzes the concept of bioethics formulation for each of them, considering their impact in
the context of today's environmental debates. At the end concludes by emphasizing the importance of deepening bioethical reflection as proposed by these authors, especially considering the points of intersection of
their theoretical proposals that could prove crucial to the understanding of a new ecological paradigm.
Keywords: Bioethics - History. Bioethics - Trends. Bioethical issues. Philosophy. Europe. United States.
As origens da bioética: do credo bioético de Potter ao imperativo bioético de Fritz Jahr
Este artigo apresenta as origens históricas da bioética a partir dos trabalhos de Van Rensselaer Potter e de
Fritz Jahr, que em dois momentos distintos cunharam a expressão bioética. Traz breve histórico deste último
autor e analisa a formulação de cada um deles para o conceito de bioética, considerando seu impacto no
contexto das discussões ambientais hodiernas. Conclui apontando a importância de aprofundar a reflexão
bioética nos moldes propostos por estes autores, considerando, especialmente, os pontos de intersecção de
suas propostas teóricas que podem revelar-se determinantes para a compreensão de um novo paradigma
Palavras-chave: Bioética - História. Bioética - Tendências. Temas bioéticos. Filosofia. Europa (Continente).
Estados Unidos.
Update Articles
Leo Pessini
En los orígenes de la bioética: de la creencia bioética de Potter hacia el imperativo bioético de Fritz Jahr
Este artículo presenta los orígenes históricos de la bioética a partir del trabajo de Van Rensselaer Potter y
Fritz Jahr que acuñaron, en dos momentos distintos, la expresión Bioética. Presenta un breve historial de
este último autor y analiza la creación del concepto de bioética a cada uno de ellos, teniendo en cuenta su
impacto en el contexto de las discusiones ambientales de hoy. Concluye poniendo de relieve el profundizar la
reflexión bioética en los modelos propuestos por dichos autores, considerando especialmente los puntos de
intersección de sus propuestas teóricas que pueden revelarse determinantes a la comprensión de un nuevo
paradigma ecológico.
Palabras-clave: Bioética - Historia. Bioética - Tendencias. Discusiones bioéticas. Filosofia. Europa (Continente).
Estados Unidos.
Doctor [email protected] – Centro Universitário São Camilo, São Paulo/SP, Brazil.
Avenida Pompéia, 888 – Pompéia - Zip 05022-000. São Paulo/SP, Brazil.
The author reports no conflict of interest.
Rev bioét (Impr.) 2013; 21 (1): 9-18
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
What I ask of you is to think bioethics as a new
scientific ethics that combines modesty, responsibility, and competence in an interdisciplinary and
intercultural perspective and that reinforces the
humanity sense.
Van Rensselaer Potter
Respect every living being on principle as a goal in
itself and treat it, if possible, as such.
Fritz Jahr
Bioethics, considered from the American biochemist perspective, Van Rensselaer Potter, and the
publication date of his first article1 (1970), completed 43 years of existence since the term was coined
in the United States of America (USA). Recent studies dislocate this date to 1927, in Germany, and find
Fritz Jahr. A historic fact, therein, was the release of
his book Fritz Jahr and the foundations of global bioethics: the future of integrative bioethics2, publicized
in the 8th International Conference on Clinical Ethics
and Consultation, in Sao Paulo (May, 16-19, 2012).
Not without a hint of irony, its folder had the following assertion:
Do you know who invented ‘bioethics’? No, not the
Americans. It was Fritz Jahr, a minister from Halle
an der Saale. In 1927, he critically opposed to the
categorical imperative of Kant with his bioethical
imperative: ‘respect every living being on principle
as a goal in itself and treat it, if possible, as such’2.
Thus, our reflective journey searching for the
roots of the neologism "bioethics" happens in two
fundamental moments. We start with Potter in the
USA, with his "bioethical creed", and then we go back
in history to the 20th decade, with Fritz Jahr. We conclude our thinking with an approximation between
both pioneer protagonists in bioethical agenda, in
the urgent rescue of Earth care, in order to have
the guaranty of life's future. This work, therefore,
aims the historical rescue of the contribution of Van
Rensselaer Potter and Fritz Jahr in the creation of
the term bioethics. The bibliography contemplates
original works of the authors, as well as references
that orientate the construction of ecologic discussion and its possible interface with bioethics.
The intellectual legacy of Potter
Potter, who called bioethics the “science of human survival”1, traced a work agenda that starts with
the intuition of neologism creation and goes up to the
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possibility of being faced as a systemic or deep discipline, in 1988. Some more important information of
this itinerary is interesting to recall, beginning with
the question of how the word bioethics was created.
In 1970-71, Potter coined the word “bioethics”,
using it in two writings. Firstly, in the article “Bioethics, science of survival”, published in Persp Biol Med
(1970)3; then, in the work Bioethics: bridge to the future (1971)1 – dedicated to Aldo Leopold, renowned
professor in the University of Wisconsin, who in a
pioneer way started to discuss an “earth ethics”. This
neologism came up in the media on April, 19th, 1971,
when the magazine Time published a long article titled “Man into superman: the promise and peril of
the new genetics”, in which Potter's book was cited
and in whose back cover it is possible to read:
Polluted air and water, population explosion, ecology, conservation – many voices speak, many definitions are given. Who is right? The ideas interchange
and there are conflictive arguments that confuse
the questions and delay the action. What is the answer? Is man really putting his environment at risk?
Wouldn't it be necessary to improve the conditions
he created? Is the threat to survival real or is it all
pure advertising of some hysterical theorists? (...)
This new science, bioethics, combines the work of humanists and scientists, whose objectives are wisdom
and knowledge. Wisdom is defined as the knowhow
to use knowledge for social well-being. The pursuit
of wisdom has a new orientation, because human's
survival is at issue. Ethical values must be testes in
terms of future and cannot be divorced from biological facts. Actions that reduce the chances of human
survival are immoral and must be judged in terms
of available knowledge and monitoring of "survival
parameters" chosen by scientists and humanists4.
Potter shows bioethics as a link between biologic science and ethics. His intuition consisted of
thinking that the survival of a great part of human
species, in a decent and sustainable civilization, depended on development and maintenance of an
ethic system. In 1998, when looking back to this first
moment of reflection, he affirmed:
What interested me that moment, when I was 51
years old, was the questioning of progress and to
where western culture was leading all the materialist advances belonging to science and technology. I
expressed my ideas of what, from my point of view,
had turned into a bioethical mission: a trial of answering the question facing humanity: what kind
of future will we have? And do we have a choice?
Consequently, bioethics changed to a vision that demanded a discipline to guide humanity as a 'bridge
to the future'(...)5.
called Global Bioethics)11, he intended to consolidate an approach that went beyond applied ethics –
as bioethics was understood in relation to medicine.
On Bioethics: bridge to the future introduction,
he affirmed: If there are two cultures that seem incapable of dialogue – sciences and humanities – and if it
appears as a reason for a doubtful future, then, possibly, we could build a bridge to the future, creating
bioethics as the bridge between two cultures 6. Both
margins connected by this bridge are Greek terms
“bios” (life) and “ethos” (ethics); “bios” representing
biological knowledge, the science of living systems,
and “ethics” the knowledge of human values. Potter
aspired to create a discipline that promoted dynamic
and interaction between the human being and the
environment. He chased the intuition of Aldo Leopold and, under such optics, he anticipated what currently became a worldwide worry: ecology.
In 1988, Potter enlarges bioethics in relation to
other disciplines, not only as a bridge between biology and ethics, but also a dimension of a global ethics: The original theory of bioethics was the intuition
of human survival, in a decent and sustainable way
of civilization, demanding development and maintenance of an ethic system. Such system (the implementation of the bridge bioethics) is the global bioethics,
found in intuition and thinking based on empiric
knowledge from all sciences, however, specially, from
biological knowledge… Nowadays, this ethical system
keeps being the center of the bridge bioethics as an
extension for global bioethics, what demanded the
encounter of medical ethics with environmental ethics in a worldwide scale to preserve human survival11.
It is important to register that there is another
researcher to whom the paternity of the term bioethics is attributed. He is the Dutch obstetrician
André Hellegers, from Georgetown University, who,
six months after the release of Potter's book, names
with the term bioethics a new center of studies – Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics – nowadays known
as Kennedy Institute of Ethics. Hellegers cheered up
a discussion group of physicians and theologians
(Protestants and Catholics) who saw the medical
technological progress as a critical worry, which
showed huge and complex challenges to the ethical
systems of the western world7. To Reich, historian of
bioethics and organizer of the first two Encyclopedia
of bioethics editions (2003, 1995)8,9, “the legacy of
Hellegers” is in the fact that he understood his mission in relation to bioethics as the one of someone
who made the bridge between medicine, philosophy, and ethics – a legacy that ended up conquering
hegemony and becoming a field of revitalizing study
of medical ethics 10.
Therefore, in his cradle, bioethics has a double
paternity and approach – on one side, macro bioethics problems, inspired on Potter's perspective, on
the other side, micro bioethics or clinical bioethics
problems, with clear sustentation on Hellegers' legacy. Even though, in the present days, the importance
of both perspectives is acknowledged by academics
of field, Potter did not forget to express his disappointment in relation to the course that bioethics
took, even though he recognized the importance of
Georgetown's perspective: my own vision of bioethics demands a much wider vision. With the combination of scientific and philosophic knowledge (later
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
Potter, in his video presentation for the 4th
World Congress of Bioethics (Tokyo, 1998)5, recalls
that Hans Kung12 directed attention to a global ethics related to politics and economy, in relation to
the ones that all other nations and people from the
most different cultural traditions and beliefs must
be responsible for. He emphasized that the heart of
Kung’s global ethics is in the human, which sounds
plausible to him, even though he considers that this
perspective is not enough to characterize bioethics,
because to do so it would be necessary to explain
the respect for nature in different cultures, beyond
to the perspective pointed to the Jewish and Christian culture.
In 1998, Potter exposed the idea of deep bioethics, retaking the thought of Whitehouse, from
the Cleveland University. Whitehouse took the idea
of evolutional biology advances, specially the systemic and complex thought that includes biological
systems. The deep bioethics tries to understand the
planet as big entwined and interdependent biological systems, in which the center does not correspond to man, as in times before, but to the own
life; the human being is only a small link in the huge
life net, situated in the trail opened by the thought
of the philosopher Arne Naess, in the beginning of
70's, last century13.
Science and religion and the challenge to guarantee the future of life on Earth
In an article published in the magazine The Scientist with the suggestive title “Science, religion must
share quest for global survival”14, Potter said that we
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
can no longer be comfortable with the idea that, in
the future, if things get worse, science will have the
answers. The moment to act and prove our ethical
competence, as well as technical, is today: And central to our efforts must be the promotion of dialogue
between science and religion concerning human and
biosphere survival. For centuries, the subject of human values has been regarded as beyond the realm
of science, the exclusive property of theologians and
secular philosophers. Now we must assert not only
that scientists have transcendent values, too, but
also that the values embedded in the scientific ethos
need to be integrated with those of religion and philosophy in order to facilitate political processes beneficial to the global environment's health 15.
Searching for friends to support his cause,
Potter registered that many books and articles approached environmental and human health problems, but relatively a few authors focused the question on human survival in the future. Among them,
Hans Jonas – The imperative of responsibility: in
search of an ethic for the technological age (University of Chicago Press; 1993); Manfred Stanley – The
technological conscience: survival and dignity in an
age of expertise (University of Chicago Press; 1981);
and Hans Kung – mentor and writer of the Global
Ethic Declaration, final document of the Parliament
of the World's Religions (Chicago, 1993)16.
It is on this last author that Potter will comment and this will interest the perspective of building a bridge between science and religion. Potter
has a critical appreciation in relation to the perspective of Kung's global ethics. He affirms that in
the core of the religious moral defended by Kung,
the worry with the fast population growth is not
incorporated. He highlights that among the most
famous religions, in particular Catholicism and Islamism, are the ones that contribute most to the
current and frightening population growth rate.
Still, according to Potter, only science has the
techniques to analyze population changes and its
impact. As he noticed, when formulating a global
ethics, Kung pointed that human survival was a key
question, idea that no other theologian had mentioned before. Even though other religious leaders
had proclaimed that life is sacred and defended
human rights, only Kung put human survival in
the agenda of ethical reflection. Scientists, on the
other hand, had long before embraced in the heart
of their efforts the challenge of human well-being
and, implicitly, human survival, being credited to
collaborate in the cause for human survival and
survival of the biosphere16.
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Potter goes beyond when he says that not
only theologians, but also secular philosophers,
failed in thinking on human survival and on the survival of biosphere as an ethical matter. This thinking
was restricted to interpersonal or social relations
among human beings, therefore, excluding behavior matters related to population growth and ecological problems. Potter highlights as important in
the Global Ethic Declaration14 that survival cannot
exist without a global ethic, which world peace will
not exist without peace among religions. An alliance between believers and non-believers (atheist,
agnostics, and others), with mutual respect, might
also be necessary to concretize a common global
ethics to all human beings:
Scientists should applaud the efforts of Hans Kung
in urging reconciliation between "believers" and
those who are not essentially characterized as religious; included among these, I believe, are the
great majority of scientists. And we need to join
forces with his drive toward global responsibility for
survival and his call for the "mutual respect" necessary for "a common world ethic" 17.
In several writings, Potter manifested deep
worry with the fast global population growth, reminding that demographers project that it will
double in the mid-21st century. The approach of
this issue reveals a militant side obsessed with
the population issue, which has a rather alarmist
bias. Today, the demographic issue has a series of
new crucial factors that worry, which Potter not
even perceived. His preaching that the population
growth should be discontinued is ironically visible
in the plate of his old car, in the inscription of the
letters YES ZPG (Zero Population Growth)18. In his
bioethical creed – in its entirety at the end of this
work – he describes that the compromise in relation to personal and familiar health is expressed
in limiting reproductive powers according to national and international purposes. Potter thinks the
problem of overpopulation will not be solved while
most religions are opposed to any attempt of limiting fertility.
The dialogue between science and religion is
certainly not easy, and the author wonders how to
build consensus and political acceptance by governments. Could the search for a global ethics,
shared by religion and science, not be expressed
in concrete principles for action? The inquietude
of this search remains, but without the certainty
of finding satisfactory answers in this historical
moment. In the dialogue between science and reli-
At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
We are aware that religions cannot solve Earth’s
economic, politic and social problems. However,
they can provide what we cannot achieve through
economic plans, politic programs, and legal regulations. Religions can cause changes in the interior
orientation, mentality, and people's hearts and take
them to a "conversion" of a "false path" to a new
life orientation (…) Religions, however, are capable
of giving people a horizon of sense to their lives and
a spiritual home. Certainly, religions can act with
credibility only when they eliminate conflicts that
come up among themselves and tear down hostile
images and prejudices, fears, and mutual distrusts19.
Finally, science and religion engage in a long
and historic battle for truth hegemony20. In the enthusiasm of achieving such hegemony, they try to
deny each other, and now they must walk together,
hand in hand, due to a greater objective, a cause
that matters to the whole humanity: guarantee
the future of life (human and cosmic-ecologic) in
the planet Earth. One of the most revealing documents on Potter personality, which made bioethics his life's cause and acclaims his followers to do
the same if they want to be called bioethicist, is
expressed in his bioethical creed21. Also, Potter's
final words, in the video showed in the 4th World
Congress of Bioethics, constituted in an agenda of
future challenge to bioethics. We rescued this declaration, whose present is unquestionable, when
concluding the topic on his person, work, and legacy to bioethics:
As I come to the cessation of my experience, I feel
that bridge bioethics, deep bioethics, and global
bioethics reached the column of a new day that was
far beyond what I had ever imagined. Undoubtedly,
we need to remember a message of the year of 1975
that emphasizes humility with responsibility as a
basic bioethics that logically follows the acceptance
that probabilistic facts, or in part luck, has consequences on human beings and living systems. Humility is the consequent characteristic that assumes
'I might be mistaken' and demands responsibility to
learn from experience and available knowledge. To
conclude, what I ask of you is to think bioethics as
a new scientific ethics that combines modesty, responsibility, and competence in an interdisciplinary
and intercultural perspective and that reinforces
the humanity sense5.
Finding the figure and original intuition of
Fritz Jahr
Until very recently, the American biochemist
Van Rensselaer Potter was known as the first person who used the neologism “bioethics”. In 1997,
however, Professor Rolf Lother, from the Humboldt
University in Berlin, in a conference in Tübingen,
mentions Fritz Jahr, to whom he credits the word
Bio-Ethik in 1927. According to his narration, Lother
heard the term "bioethics" for the first time in the
beginning of the 90's of the last century. Once the
term sounded familiar to him, he started to look for
it in the published editions of the famous periodical
Kosmos, left by his grandfather, in which he found
the editorial of the 1927 volume and the Jahr's historic article titled “Bio-Ethics: a review of the ethical
relationships of humans to animals and plants”22.
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gion, summing up the key questions, it is worth to
highlight what Potter says about the Global Ethic
The finding of this work was diffused by EveMarie Engels, from the University of Tübingen, who
organized and edited the annals of the conference
Lother had participated. Engels mentioned Lother's
discovery in the article “Bioethik”, in the Metzler
Lexicon, in 1999, translated to Portuguese and republished in 2004 in the Brazilian magazine Veritas,
from Porto Alegre23. This text called the attention of
the biologist José Roberto Goldim, who wrote two
articles24,25 revisiting the beginning of bioethics and
Fritz Jahr's contribution. A more detailed analysis of
Jahr's ideas was elaborated by Hans-Martin Sass, his
fellow citizen and who worked for years in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics².
While Fritz Jahr’s thought starts to be investigated, his life is still a mystery. A preliminary research
in files from his home contributed with many interesting facts. Paul Max Fritz Jahr was born on January, 18th, 1895, in Halle, Central Germany, where he
spent all his life. Today, this city has approximately
234 thousand inhabitants. His parents, Gustav Maximillian and Auguste Marie Langrock, were Protestants, but Fritz was baptized in a Catholic ritual. His
first studies were done in the Francke Foundation,
linked to the Protestant Pietism of his idealizers (August Hermann Francke and Phillipp Jakob Spener). In
university, Jahr studied Philosophy, Music, History,
National Economy, and Theology. During the summer of 1915, he worked as a war volunteer and in
1921 he received the holy orders, as a minister.
Jahr started to teach in 1917 and until 1925
he worked as a teacher in 11 different elementary
schools. From 1925 on, he became active in Church.
During the first four years, he was a curate in St.
John's Church, in Dieskau (near Halle); and between
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
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1930 and 1933, he became minister in Kanena. It
must have been a little bit harsh to him, because
before going to the pulpit to preach he felt a dizziness that obliged him to take a medicine called
On April, 26th, 1932, Jahr married Berta Elise
Neuholz, but they did not have children. They lived
at Albert-Schmidt-Strasse 8, Halle, address where he
lived since 1923, when he was 18 years old. In this
place, he lived firstly with his parents and, later, until
1930, only with his father, who was a manic depressive. In 1932, turbulent time for Germany, Fritz retired from the Church services due to a "nervous exhaustion". On March, 1st, 1922, he was 38 years old,
and retired completely from service; only a month
after Hitler had assumed power in the country. During this war, his family faced financial difficulties, aggravated by his wife's sufferings, who suffered from
vertebral sclerosis. She constantly used a wheelchair
and died on June, 1947. Fritz Jahr spent his last days
working as a Music teacher. His pedagogic skills
were deeply appreciated. He died on October, 1st,
1953, at 58 years old, in his house in Halle26.
The 20's of the last century were a troubled
moment in politics, economics and cultural terms
all over Europe and mainly in Germany. The Great
Depression was starting and the Nazis were in the
process to take politics, society and public opinion.
According to Sass, in that time, 85 years ago: Jahr
makes it clear that the concept, culture, and mission
of bioethics are with humanity, maybe, since pre-historic times, and it was not a heritage from a culture
or from only one continent: the respect to the world
of life, to human beings, plants, animals, to the natural and social environment, and earth, the Taoist
reverence to nature, the Buddhist compassion, with
all forms of life suffering, the Francisco de Assis call
to fraternity with plants and animals, Albert Schwitzer's philosophy of respect to all life forms, are primordial examples of deep human compassion to inanimate life and human compromise in respecting
other life forms27.
The birth of “integrative” bioethics
In the past years, some publications on Fritz
Jahr started to come up, as well as scientific events,
among which is highlighted the 1st International
Conference on Fritz Jahr and his European roots
of bioethics, held in the city of Rijeka (Croatia) on
March, 11th and 12th, 2011. In the same port city of
the Adriatic Sea, the 8th World Congress of Bioeth-
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ics was held, in 2008, organized by the International
Association of Bioethics. The Rijeka Declaration28
was elapsed in the Congress on Fritz Jahr, in which it
is affirmed: Fritz Jahr used the term ‘bioethics’ (‘BioEthik’) as early as 1927. His “bioethical imperative”
should guide personal, professional, cultural, social,
and political life, as well as the development and application of science and technology.
The signatories of the Declaration affirm that
contemporary bioethics, sometimes, was reduced
to the ambit of medical ethic issues (informed consensus, principles, doctor-patient relation, patient's
rights, etc.) and that it was necessary to enlarge
bioethics with the formulation of integrative bioethics: It is necessary that bioethics be substantially
broadened and conceptually and methodologically
transformed so that it may consider different cultural, scientific, philosophical, and ethical perspectives
(pluriperspective approach), integrating those perspectives into orientational knowledge and practical
action (integrative approach)28.
The document goes on affirming: Such Integrative Bioethics will have to harmonize, respect,
and learn from the rich plurality of individual and
communal perspectives and cultures of the global
community. It is longed for that bioethics becomes
a truly open field of meeting and dialogue of various
sciences and professions, visions and worldviews,
that have been gathered to articulate, to discuss,
and to solve ethical issues related to life as a whole
and each of its parts, life in all its forms, shapes,
stages, and manifestations, as well as to life conditions in general28.
Believing in the acknowledgement and growth
of bioethics, it was considered that it will become
a 'bridge to the future', a 'science of survival', and
wisdom as ‘knowledge of how to use knowledge’ of
modern medicine and technology, as Potter defined
in 197028.
Fritz Jahr: the bioethical imperative – in the
origins of bioethics
In the quoted article of Kosmos – “Bio-Ethics: a
review of the ethical relationships of humans to animals and plants” – Jahr proposed the bioethical imperative that enlarged to all forms of life the moral
imperative of Kant: act in such a way that you treat
Humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another as an end in itself and never merely
as a means. This proposal can be translated, then,
to: Respect every living being essentially as an end in
itself and treat it as such if possible! The concept of
Jahr's bioethics is wider than the one from American
pioneers, including all forms of life.
Jahr, thinking on the crescent progress of
physiology in his time and on the moral challenges
related to the development of society, always more
secular and pluralist, redefines moral obligations
in relation to all forms of life, humans and non-humans, creating a concept of bioethics as academic
discipline, principle and virtue. Even though he did
not influence history, as expected, once he lived in a
politically and morally troubled time, his vision and
ethical arguments are enlightening contributions
to the bioethical field that, by conciliating science
and technology, demands ethical-philosophical reflection (and solution), including understanding its
"geo-ethical" dimensions27.
Jahr's thinking in relation to bioethical imperative is spread in several of his writings, even
though he had not systematized it. So, Sass attempt
to elaborate coherent reading and interpretation of
bioethical imperative is extremely useful. Sass identifies at least six aspects that expand the theoretical
proposal of Jahr in relation to Kant's imperative:
1) The Bioethical Imperative guides ethical and cultural attitudes and responsibilities in the life sciences
and towards all forms of life (...);
2) The Bioethical Imperative is based on historical
and other evidence that ‘compassion is an empirical
established phenomenon of the human soul’ (...);
3) The Bioethical Imperative strengthens and complements moral recognition and duties towards fellow humans in the Kantian context and should be
followed in respect of human culture and mutual
moral obligations among humans (...);
4) The Bioethical Imperative has to recognize, to
steward, and to cultivate the struggle for life among
forms of life and natural and cultural living environments (...);
5) The Bioethical Imperative implements compassion, love, and solidarity with all forms of life as a
content-based principle and virtue into the ‘golden
rule’ and into the Kant’s Categorical imperative,
which are reciprocal and formal only;
6) The Bioethical Imperative includes obligations towards one’s own body and soul as a living being29.
It is important to register that the concept of
bioethics was not readily and easily accepted in Germany. It was considered excessively controversial and
labeled as "American product". Only since 1986 the
term was officially introduced and used more frequently. And it was Sass, his compatriot, who rescued
from the silence of history the figure of Fritz Jahr, as
well as his audacious and advanced concept of bioethics, which enlarged the ethical duties associated to
human beings by including animals and plants to the
imperative. Regarding this, it should be considered
that Jahr does not include ethical duties to all beings
considering its utility, as is the currently approach,
but for recognizing its intrinsic value. It is, therefore,
about a horizontal perspective. Potter, on the other
hand, follows the tradition of Aldo Leopold, doing a
longitudinal cutting of human duties to the future, in
the perspective of the own human survival30.
Final considerations
Ending this reflection, it is possible to formulate two questions, one related to the origins and
another to the future: Oh, bioethics, where do you
come from? In Fritz Jahr and Potter, we found indications of its origins. But, where are you going?
The future goes in the perspective of both analyzed
protagonists, who anticipated prophetically all current ecological problematic and are tuned with the
United Nations ecological cause, and with the cause
of honorable activists in the area, among others,
Mikhail Gorbachev31.
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
This last one identifies three big challenges to
be faced in our time. The first one is the need to keep
world peace. The international community has to be
united in the fight against terrorism, which cannot
be justified under any political or moral consideration. The second one is the fight against poverty.
How is it possible that a "golden million" of people
favored by luck remain indifferent in front of the
misery spectacle in which about half the population
is inserted, reduced to live with one or two dollars a
day, starving daily, with no access to potable water
and without decent conditions of hygiene? The third
challenge identified is related to the environment.
We are in a serious conflict with our own habitat –
with Mother Nature.
These three challenges are interdependent. If
poverty is not contested, all other ecological measures will be useless, but if we do not worry about
ecology, all our efforts to build a fairer world will be
faded to failure and our descendants will have to pay
for our foolish and depredator behavior to nature.
Earth's own life is at risk of disappearing, becoming
only an ephemeral episode in the universe history32.
The three proposed challenges are not related
only to the governments and international organizations, but also to each of us. It is the time for each
Rev bioét (Impr.) 2013; 21 (1): 9-18
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
citizen of the planet Earth to think about their personal contribution to this simple common task: We
are responsible, in front of the future generations,
for the conservation of life on Earth (...). Today, humanity needs a new philosophy of life, a new ethics,
one that will crystallize fundamental values, common to all religious traditions, an ethics based on
consensus among nations and people of the world31.
Gorbachev named this project as a process to
elaborate a global ethics and concludes saying: as
the example of the great American writer William
Faulkner, I refuse to accept the possibility of humanity's end, whatever are the probations they have to
face. This is my creed, the one of an incorrigible optimist32. Recalling the Letters from the Earth, he confesses to crave that our time is remembered by the
awakening of a new reverence facing life, by a firm
compromise to reach sustainability, by the fast fight
for justice, by peace and happy celebration of life31.
One of the most important bioethical contemporary documents, elaborated by Unesco in 2005,
titled Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human
Rights33, points out among the objectives of the
Declaration, to promote respect towards biodiversity and, among its fundamental principles, the protection to environment, biosphere and biodiversity.
To conclude, it is important to retake a bioethical
reflection elaborated in a seminar assembled by the
Argentine government – realized in Buenos Aires
in 2004 – with the intention to contribute for the
elaboration of Unesco's declaration:
Convinced that bioethics is not only about ethical
problems originated in the scientific and technological development, but also about the conditions that
turn the human environment ecologically balanced
in the natural biodiversity and all ethical problems
related to the care of life and health, has as its basic
presupposition the concept of integral health under-
stood from the biological, psychological, social and
environmental perspective as the development of
essential human capacities that turn viable a longlived and healthy life that is possible to be reached
by everyone, as much as possible. (Text distributed
to the members of the Brazilian Society of Bioethics
through correspondence on 11/20/2004)
Considering the perspectives showed in the
last global conferences, it is observed that bioethics
is advancing globally (geographically), enlarging its
epistemological comprehension, as well as its thematic range, facing emergent challenges and signalizing priorities afterwards. Jahr, in 1926-27, and Potter, in the beginning of the 70's, are both pioneers
that point to the biggest challenges humanity faces
in the beginning of the millennium: responsibility to
guarantee the future of life on Earth. By answering
this challenge, we will be delegating to future generations the results of our scientific and technological
conquers as much as a sustainable environment and
auspicious to life in its plenitude. As T. S. Eliot says:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of
all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time!16.
To rescue the intellectual contribution of Potter and Jahr to the field of bioethics, beyond the
hegemonic bioethical paradigm, is a question of historic justice. It was, therefore, the purpose of this
reflection that raided in the origins of bioethics. As
to weight the historic and conceptual differences of
these authors, both delineated perspectives that allow an approximation between bioethics and ecology, which currently is revealed to be indispensable.
To deepen in this discussion, however, extrapolates
our immediate objective and it would be a subject
for another article. For now, we are satisfied in presenting this return to the origins, with a respectful
salutation to the memory of its precursors.
1. Potter VR. Bioethics: bridge to the future. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall; 1971.
2. Muzur A, Sass H-M, editors. Fritz Jahr and the foundations of global bioethics: the future of
integrative bioethics. Munster: Lit Verlag; 2012.
3. Potter VR. Bioethics, science of survival. Persp Biol Med. 1970;14:27-153.
4. Potter VR. Op. cit. 1971. p. 7-8.
5. Potter VR. Script do vídeo elaborado e apresentado para o IV Congresso Mundial de Bioética, 4-7
de novembro de 1998, realizado em Tóquio. Mundo Saúde. 1998;22(4):6.
6. Potter VR. Op. cit. 1971. p. 6.
7. Reich WT. The word ´bioethics´: its birth and the legacies of those who shaped it. Kennedy Inst
Ethics J. 1995;5(1):19-34.
8. Reich WT. Shaping and mirroring the field: The Encyclopedia of Bioethics. In: Walter JK, Klein EP,
editors. The Story of Bioethics: from seminal works to contemporary explorations. Washington:
Georgetown University Press; 2003.
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9. Reich WT. Encyclopedia of Bioethics. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan; 1985. Introduction; p. 19-32.
10. Reich WTh. The word ´bioethics´: its birth and the legacies of those who shaped it. Kennedy Inst
Ethics J. 1994;4:319-35.
11. Potter VR. Global Bioethics: building on the Leopold Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State
University Press; 1988.
12. Kung H, Schmidt H, editors. A Global Ethic and a global responsibilities: two Declarations. London:
SCM Press; 1998.
13. Naess A. The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movements: a summary. Inquiry.
14. Potter VR. Science, Religion must share quest for global survival. The Scientist. 1994;8(10):1-12.
15. Potter VR. Op. cit. 1994. p. 3.
16. Pessini L, Barchifontaine CP. Problemas atuais de Bioética. 10ª ed. São Paulo: Loyola; 2012.
17. Potter VR. Op. cit. 1994. p. 7.
18. Whitehouse P. Van Rensselaer Potter: the original bioethicist (in memoriam). Hastings Cent Rep.
19. Potter VR. Op. cit. 1994. p. 11.
20. Peters T, Nennett G, organizadores. Construindo pontes entre a ciência e a religião. São Paulo:
Loyola; 2003.
21. Pessini L. Bioética: das origens à prospecção de alguns desafios contemporâneos. In: Pessini L,
Barchifontaine CP, organizadores. Bioética e longevidade humana. São Paulo: Loyola; 2006. p.
22. Jahr F. Bio-Ethik: eine Umschau über die ethischen. Beziehungen des Menschen zu Tier und
Pflanze. Kosmos. Handweiser für Naturfreunde. 1927;24(1):2-4.
23. Engels E-M. O desafio das biotecnias para a ética e a antropologia. Veritas. 2004;50(2):205-28.
24. Goldim JR. Bioética? Origens e complexidade. Rev Hosp Clin Porto Alegre. 2006;26(2):86-92.
25. Goldim JR. Revisiting the beginning of bioethics: the contribution of Fritz Jahr (1927). Perspect
Biol Med. 2009;52:377-80.
26. Muzur A, Rincic I. Fritz Jahr (1895-1953): a life story of the ‘inventor’ of Bioethics and a
tentative reconstruction of the chronology of the discovery of his Word. In: Jahr F. Annual of
the Department of Social Sciences and Medical Humanities at University of Rijeka – Faculty of
Medicine. 2011;2(4):385-94.
27. Sass H-M. Post Scriptum da II parte: Fritz Jahr, Ensaios em Bioética e Ética 1927-1947. In: Pessini
L, Barchifontaine CP, Hossne WS, Anjos MF, organizadores. Ética e Bioética Clínica no pluralismo
e diversidade: teorias, experiências e perspectivas. São Paulo: Centro Universitário São Camilo;
2012. p. 484-94.
28. Declaração de Rijeka sobre o futuro da bioética. [Tradução de José Roberto Goldim]. Annual of
the Department of Social Sciences end Medical Humanities at the University of Rijeka – Faculty
of Medicine. [Internet]. 2011[acesso 20 mar. 2013];2(4):587-8. Disponível: http://hrcak.srce.hr/
29. Sass H-M. European roots of Bioethics: Fritz Jahr’s 1927 definition and vision of Bioethics. In: Covic
A, Gosic N, Tomasevic L, editors. From new Medical Ethics to integrative Bioethics. Pargamena:
Zabreb; 2009. p. 22.
30. Pessini L, Barchifontaine CP, Hossne WS, Anjos MF, organizadores. Ética e Bioética Clínica no
pluralismo e diversidade: teorias, experiências e perspectivas. São Paulo: Centro Universitário
São Camilo; 2012. Parte II, Fritz Jahr: ensaios em Bioética e Ética 1927-1947. p. 438-82.
31. Gorbachev M. Meu manifesto pela terra. São Paulo: Planeta; 2003.
32. Sass H-M. The Earth is a living being: we have to treat her as such! Eubios J Asian Int Bioeth.
33. Organização das Nações Unidas para a Educação, Ciência e Cultura. Declaração Universal sobre
Bioética e Direitos Humanos. Portugal: Comissão Nacional da Unesco; 2005.
Artigos de atualização
At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
Received: 10.11.2012
Reviewed: 2.15.2013
Approved: 3. 8.2013
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At the origins of bioethics: from Potter’s bioethical creed to Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative
Artigos de atualização
A bioethical creed for individuals
1. Belief: I accept the need for prompt remedial action in a world beset with crises.
Commitment: I will work with others to improve the formulation of my beliefs, to evolve additional credos, and to unite in a worldwide movement
that will make possible the survival and improved
development of the human species in harmony with
the natural environment.
2. Belief: I accept the fact that the future
survival and development of mankind, both culturally and biologically, is strongly conditioned by
man's present activities and plans that affect the
Commitment: I will try to live my own life and
to influence the lives of others so as to promote the
evolution of a better world for future generations of
mankind, and I will try to avoid actions that would
jeopardize their future, when the environment's
role in the food and fibers production is ignored.
Commitment: I will try to face my own problems with dignity and courage, I will try to assist my
fellow men when they are afflicted, and I will work
toward the goal of eliminating needless suffering
among mankind as a whole.
5. Belief: I accept the finality of death as a necessary part of life. I affirm my veneration for life, my
belief in the brotherhood of man, and my belief that
I have an obligation to future generations of man.
Commitment: I will try to live in a way that will
benefit the lives of my fellow men now and in time
to come and be remembered favorably by those
who survive me.
6. Belief: I accept that society will collapse if
the ecosystem is damaged irreparably, unless the
human fertility is worldwide controlled, due to the
concomitant increase in the competence of its members to comprehend and maintain human health.
3. Belief: I accept the uniqueness of each individual and his instinctive need to contribute to
the betterment of some larger unit of society in a
way that is compatible with the long-range needs
of society.
Commitment: I will try to improve skills or a
professional talent that will contribute for society's
survival and improvement and the maintenance of a
healthy ecosystem. I will help others in the development of their potential talents, and at the same time
cultivating self-care, self-esteem, and personal value.
Commitment: I will try to listen to the reasoned viewpoint of others whether from a minority
or a majority, and I will recognize the role of emotional commitment in producing effective action.
7. Belief: I accept that each adult person is
responsible for their own health, as well as for
the development of this personality dimension in
their lineage.
4. Belief: I accept the inevitability of some
human suffering that must result from the natural
disorder in biological creatures and in the physical
world, but I do not passively accept the suffering
that results from man's inhumanity to man.
Commitment: I will try to put the obligations
described as bioethical compromise for personal
and familiar health into practice. I will limit my reproductive powers according to national or international purposes.” (p. 193-5)11.
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