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FIRST-PERSON: Ethicists & biomedical researchers

DALLAS (BP) — Harvard psychology professor and author Steven Pinker, in an op-ed for the Boston Globe, makes his case for biomedical research to be unencumbered by moral abstractions.

Pinker concludes his Aug. 1 piece with a reference to the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who had the fate of perpetually rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it roll back down. Pinker argues that “the last thing” biomedical research needs is “a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.”

While Pinker rightly notes the incredible advances and accompanying benefits afforded humanity through biomedical research and development, he is mystifyingly misguided about the proper relationship between science (or technology) and ethics.

I am tempted to argue with each of his claims. Something like this:

Pinker: “Some say that it’s simple prudence to pause and consider the long-term implications of research before it rushes headlong into changing the human condition. But this is an illusion.”

Me: “Somehow I suspect that famed physicists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Neils Bohr of the 20th century would disagree, along with whoever introduced kudzu to southern farmers.” The point is simply that pausing to apply a moral imagination to the future doesn’t kill research or its potential applications. But it might just avoid an otherwise unforeseen consequence as potentially destructive as the foreseen one was potentially beneficial.

Pinker: “Contrary to confident predictions during my childhood, the turn of the 21st century did not bring domed cities, jetpack commuting, robot maids, mechanical hearts, or regularly scheduled flights to the moon.” His point is that imagining technology’s future beyond a few years is futile.

Me: “Any attempt to claim that the moral imaginings of the late British authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are futile is, well, futile.” (Huxley penned “Brave New World”; Orwell, “1984” and “Animal Farm.”) Of course the technological imagination is incapable of accurately describing the future — we don’t know what new mold is going to grow accidentally in someone’s Petri dish. Still, the persistence of human nature in moral imagination can yield helpful discussions of what might come down the road if we choose this or that path.

I could go on. But these refutations only distract from the one truly disturbing implication of Pinker’s argument.

The gist of his argument is that ethicists should be silenced, at least in their efforts to restrain biomedical research’s progress, by the ethical imperative to make these biomedical advances. The advances are so great — the contribution to happiness so significant and extensive — that no ethical qualm is worth the delay it might bring to the application of science’s remedies to human suffering.

That demand is stunning.

A real ethicist — the kind Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey described during the last century — is willing to call for moratoria on all kinds of scientific endeavors. Human cloning and fetal stem cell research would start my list. They expect scientists to continue to push the boundaries and, sometimes, the push and pull between scientists and ethicists will end up reinforcing the boundary. Other times it will obliterate it.

While I wish the result were always the best, it’s not. But it is a lot better than having no tug-of-war at all. That is, ethicists might consider a progressive scientist a nuisance, but they and all of society benefit from having to address his attempt to go beyond previous limits, no matter who wins the argument. Humanity benefits not simply from a monolithic progression of one discipline’s progress, but from the interaction of a variety of ideas, perspectives, disciplines and practices. To think otherwise is to eliminate the value of other people in the mix.

Scientists don’t study ethics, unless it’s a hobby or they are multi-disciplinary. But even then, they are rarely focused on it. Specialization is a beautiful and powerful thing for humanity. Scientists and engineers know how to do things ethicists shouldn’t handle without adult supervision. But ethicists also address matters neither visible through the medical researcher’s most advanced microscope nor comprehended by even the most persuasive rhetoric.

I mentioned Pinker’s reference to Sisyphus earlier. In reality, it’s not just biomedical research, but advancing human flourishing which will always be akin to Sisyphus. The last thing we need is a scientist telling half the humans trying to keep the rock moving uphill to quit pushing. Scientists push from one side, ethicists from the other.

Each side should probably be a little more grateful for the help the other is giving. Certainly neither should wish for the other simply to go away.