First, its goal is not the development of, or adherence to, a code or set of precepts, but a better understanding of the issues.
Second, it is prepared to ask deep philosophical questions about the nature of ethics, the value of life, what it is to be a person, the significance of being human.
One of the earliest written provisions related to the practice of medicine is from the Code of Hammurabi, written in Babylon in about 1750 BC.
It stipulates that if a doctor uses a bronze lancet to perform a major operation on a member of the nobility that results in death or leads to the loss of an eye, the doctor’s hand will be cut off (Pritchard, 1969).
The date of the oath, however, is unknown, with estimates ranging from the sixth century BC to the beginning of the Christian era (Edelstein, 1967).
The oath’s significance in the history of Western medical ethics is twofold.
Third, it embraces issues of public policy and the direction and control of science.
In all these senses, bioethics is a novel and distinct field of inquiry.
Even tribal societies, without a written language, already had more or less well articulated values that directed the provision of health care by shamans, exorcists, witches, sorcerers and priests, as well as by midwives, bonesetters and herbalists.
Undoubtedly bioethics claims medical ethics as part of its province, but in many ways it takes a distinctly different approach.
Traditionally, medical ethics has focused primarily on the doctor-patient relationship and on the virtues possessed by the good doctor.
It has become patently obvious during the past three or four decades that, to give just one example, someone has to decide whether to continue life-support for patients who will never regain consciousness.
This is not a technical decision that only doctors are capable of making, but an ethical decision, on which patients and others may have views no less defensible than those of doctors.
In affirming that ‘I will use dietetic measures to the use and profit of the sick according to my capacity and understanding.