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Phronesis and an ethics of responsibility

AA van Niekerk
N Nortjé


This article concerns the development of a framework for the formation of an adequate approach to moral reasoning in bioethics. Bioethics has largely been dominated by the influence of two approaches to moral reasoning, viz. utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. We aim to develop an approach to moral reasoning that we find more suitable, and that enables one to incorporate some of the valuable aspects of the two frameworks without succumbing to their deficiencies. This approach is the  ethics of responsibility, as inspired by the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Zygmunt Bauman and Hans Jonas. The two central ideas of this approach are (i) the ethics of responsibility as an approach that accommodates the possibility of failure; and (ii) that the ethics of responsibility suggests the need for a dialectic of norms and applications that can, in principle, overcome some of the most serious shortcomings of utilitarianism and deontology.In this regard we draw strongly on Aristotle’s notion of practical wisdom, or phronesis. We further develop Aristotle’s statement that  ‘Prudence is not concerned with universals only; it must also take  cognisance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances.’