As you read these words, a research scientist – somewhere in his temperature-controlled, clean laboratory – is changing the culture and media of a colony of human embryonic stem cells that once formed the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, a very early human life.
And at the very same time, an ethicist – somewhere in her temperature-controlled armchair – has her fist to her chin, thinking about that very same procedure – about whether it’s right or wrong, about the social, political and scientific consequences of just such research.
I wonder if they could ever be friends.
Moral Objectivity Over Utility
Last week I mused about the moral confusion that runs rampant amidst the multi-faceted human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research debate. I speculated that a deep-seated “consequentialism” illegitimately takes priority in most popular and media-based thought about these issues. And I called us back to thinking about the objective moral status of the embryo. I believe these should take priority around the pros or cons of hESC research.
Science and Ethics: Comrades or Combatants?
But another factor is contributing to our society’s moral confusion – not just about stem cells, but quite a few other hot buttons. That factor is the relationship of science and ethics. For as long as our scientific abilities have made certain actions scientifically possible, we’ve argued about whether these would be ethically allowable. And rightly so. For if no one put up a fuss about some of our past technological breakthroughs, we may have destroyed ourselves by now. We certainly have the potential.
And the message that we’ve all heard over the past month or so is one that seeks to end the “fight” or the “false choice between sound science and moral values.” But to do that, we must keep true dialogue going between scientists and ethicists. As individuals, we should seek to understand the scientific facts with moral clarity. I know that ethical science is possible; progress that truly serves all of humanity. And while it’s noble to raise the white flag between science and ethics, I worry that recent events and political talk has only tried to end the dialogue.
The Executive Memo
All the while blaming political speech for getting us in this ideological combat in the first place, even more political talk will now fuel the fire. In addition to an Executive Order that overturned federal funding policy, Obama also issued an Executive Memo, “seeking to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.” This Memo is potentially more far-reaching than the Order because of the power that it places in the hands of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to make recommendations for scientific and technological policy decisions. On March 9, the President qualified his two actions, stating that “(the executive action) is about letting scientists…do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.” That’s a lot of scientific power.
And yet, so far, I’ve heard very little about an appeal to the existing President’s Council on Bioethics to help guide this power. Science is only the job of the brightest, most intelligent scientists — to be sure. But ethics is not what scientists are trained for. As long as we characterize close ethical scrutiny and regulation of scientific advance as “manipulation or coercion,” there will always be enmity between the two. Truly, if the two are to be consistent and naturally friendly as we hope, there must be intimately close interaction between scientists and ethicists. One should know how the other prepares his coffee.
A Clarifying Literary Diversion
Isn’t it wonderful how the artful words of literature can heal confusion? I believe a diversion into C.S. Lewis’ writing might help. His imagination and clairvoyance remains prophetic today for those of us engaged in such debates.
In That Hideous Strength, the conclusion of his three-part Space Trilogy, Lewis tells of the N.I.C.E., Great Britain’s National Institute for Coordinated Experiments.
“The N.I.C.E. was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory, on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world. It was to be free from almost all the tiresome restraints – “red tape” was the word its supporters used – which have hitherto hampered research in this country.”
As the drama unfolds, the N.I.C.E. proves to be the furthest thing from its acronym’s spelled meaning, marked by media deception, political coercion, and ulterior motives – bent on progress and control – and all covered by the euphemism of a “benefit to humankind.” Sound unrealistic? I don’t know about that. Even George Orwell (a critic of Lewis’) admits in an August 1945 review that “we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realizble.”
And as I re-read this description, I realize how visionary Lewis was. Especially as a literary allusion to The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength is fearfully prophetic. As the Italian scientist Filostrato remarks to the misguided Mark Studdock regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the N.I.C.E. and the modern scientific community:
“All that talk about the power of Man over Nature – Man in the abstract – is only for the canaglia (Italian for “scoundrel”). You know as well as I do that Man’s power over Nature means the power of some men over other men with Nature as the instrument.”
Compare the earlier-written The Abolition of Man:
“‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science… From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
“Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”
Have we a situation in which Nature, or science, rules untrammeled by ethics and values? One in which ethics and the best of virtuous philosophy and theology no longer have any guiding hand or influence over science? One in which we’ve reduced ourselves to mere Nature and raw material? I hope not; I value the truly human.
But what would a “truly human” situation look like? One in which we refuse to undermine the dignity of human life in the science we practice…we are not mere material to be manipulated.
A Concluding Unscientific Postscript
In writing this, I’ve had trouble even referring to “scientists” vs. “ethicists” – as if they embody two extremes. Albert Einstein once mused, “It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher.” But it goes the other way: is the ethicist a poor man of science? And while not all of us have the chops to be scientists – say to know the ins-and-outs of the embryo and the stem cell – we all have access to moral knowledge. We need the clearest and most virtuous minds to guide us, but we all can and need to think about ethics. And for this reason, it’s impossible for science and ethics to be opposed. Science is one of the many things that ethics can and does consider.
And so we all need to think about science, and yes, allow the best of modern science to help us care for humanity and ensure a human future. But we all must do so continually through the lens of ethics, virtue and personhood – clearing the moral confusion – for our moral nature is a central component to our humanity.
Evan Rosa is a CBC Staff Writer, a freelance editor, and an aspiring man of philosophy. Follow his personal blog, Cultural Velocity.
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