Last month, Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and public intellectual, argued in a Boston Globe op-ed that bioethicists — those who weigh the ethical implications of biological research — had a moral imperative to “get out of the way” of research. Pinker’s assertion was nothing short of a live grenade lobbed into the field of bioethics. While perhaps harsh, there is a sizable kernel of truth in his case.
“A truly ethical bioethics,” Pinker wrote, “should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as ‘dignity,’ ‘sacredness,’ or ‘social justice.’ Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic [about] Nazi atrocities, armies of cloned Hitlers, or people selling their eyeballs on eBay.” We must not succumb, in other words, to science-fiction scenarios that have little likelihood of materializing.
Pinker’s disquisition was spurred by calls for a moratorium on research involving a new technology called CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing method that is cheap, quick, and easy to use. With the ability to modify small segments of the DNA of eggs and sperm or of the embryo itself — the so-called germ line — scientists hope to eventually use CRISPR to cure certain genetic diseases, by replacing the genes that cause them. But some bioethicists fear that the technology will work too well, thus raising the specter of “eugenics.” Such research, they claim, is “contrary to human dignity” because “the human germ line should be treated as sacred.”
Pinker finds such rationale flimsy, based less on an argument than on the gut feeling that gene modification must somehow be wrong. Worse, he says, it’s a potentially deadly view. Because biomedical inquiry saves and improves lives on a massive scale, judgments about its conduct must factor in the good that full-speed-ahead research can likely deliver, and weigh all interventions against that good.
Pinker’s commentary in turn prompted a round of condemnation. Mildred Solomon, director of bioethics think tank the Hastings Center, quickly criticized Pinker for “painting those who seek to consider the ethical implications of genetic engineering as Luddites who disdain science.” Members of the Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (an education and advocacy group for research overseers) stipulated, “Our ethical oversight system may be imperfect, but that’s not a reason to jettison ethical examination of new scientific developments.” Matthew Beard, a philosopher at the University of New South Wales, faulted Pinker for implying we should “sacrifice ethics on the altar of scientific progress.”
But Pinker does not claim we should sacrifice ethics on the altar of scientific progress. Rather, he’s saying that we should not sacrifice ethics on the altar of the “bioethics” establishment, because it does a poor job of ethical analysis. Bioethicists’ arguments are often weak, resting on outlandish hypotheticals, unanalyzed “yuck” reactions, and thinly disguised religious rationales. Logic is shoddy, supporting evidence often lacking, and a cost-benefit perspective is either absent or biased against the alleviation of human suffering at the expense of abstract principles. Pinker doesn’t trust ethics to the bioethicists. These are fighting words, no question.
But does any of this matter? How much real world power do bioethicists actually have? Answering this question is difficult; it is hard to gauge their influence. Still, Pinker’s confrontation with them is important — it prompts us to consider, more broadly, the proper role of bioethicists in society.
Adapted from https://psmag.com/the-bioethics-dilemma-288cfe9311fb#.ef20l8vwf