February 28, 2024

A wild swing at bioethics

Steven Pinker delivers a stiff uppercut to the whole field.

A luminary at Harvard who is one of America’s leading intellectuals has aimed a haymaker at the whole field of bioethics. Writing in the Boston Globe today, celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker says: “the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence. Get out of the way.”

Pinker, the author of best-sellers like The Better Angels of Our Nature and How the Mind Works, feels that the job description of contemporary bioethicists is to slow down biomedical progress or to stop it altogether. His target is not merely conservative ethicists like Leon Kass, with whom he had a famous dust-up in the National Review in 2008 over “the stupidity of dignity”, but all bioethical discourse.

“A truly ethical bioethics 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 speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like ‘Brave New World’’ and ‘Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.”

Should we be cautious? Not if it means slowing down the inevitable spread of progress.

“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. First, slowing down research has a massive human cost. Even a one-year delay in implementing an effective treatment could spell death, suffering, or disability for millions of people. Second, technological prediction beyond a horizon of a few years is so futile that any policy based on it is almost certain to do more harm than good.”

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Steven Pinker