August 13, 2022

Disdain for bioethics ignites controversy

Steven Pinker’s combative op-ed prompted many comments

Harvard star performer and leading American public intellectual Steven Pinker has set the cat amongst the bioethicists. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe Pinker argued that bioethicists should just “get out of the way” of life-saving research.

Blogs by bioethicists started to light up like Christmas trees. The controversy even prompted a summary report in Nature. But, surprisingly, quite a few academic bioethicists agreed with the drift of his argument.

Julian Savulescu, a utilitarian ethicist at the University of Oxford, and editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, also felt that bioethics was holding up life-saving biomedical developments. “What we need is less obstruction of good and ethical research, as Pinker correctly observes, and more vigilance at picking up unethical research. This requires competent, professional and trained bioethicists and improvement of ethics review processes.” 

Alice Dreger, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, a respected bioethicist and a public intellectual, also agreed, with some caveats: “As an historian of medicine and science, I’d have to agree that people have often been wrong about the supposed doom that will befall us when we achieve new biomedical technologies.”

Russell Blackford, of the University of Newcastle (Australia), wrote: “The view that he has stated, admittedly in a polemical way, is a perfectly respectable one within the field of bioethics. In fact, as a philosophical bioethicist I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Pinker claims – and I agree – that many of the current rules, and the practices through which they are interpreted and applied, have swung too far in the direction of constraining research.”

Disagreement centres on two issues. The first was Pinker’s disdain for woolly words like “human dignity” and “sacredness”. Approaching bioethics as a non-nonsense consequentialist, Pinker has no respect for dithering dignitarians. One of these, Matthew Beard, an Australian philosopher, responded that “when scientists’ research is motivated by humanitarian goals. It makes it easier to justify dismissing important ethical goals. With apologies to Steven Pinker, we can’t sacrifice ethics on the altar of scientific progress.“

The other was Pinker’s lack of realism. Scientists do need a watchdog.  

Mildred Z. Solomon, president of The Hastings Center, an American bioethics think tank, said that Pinker could not be more wrong in telling bioethicists to step aside:  “Wisdom demands, and democracy requires, not stepping away, but standing up for thoughtful reflection and public engagement.”

Daniel Sokol, an ethicist and barrister in London, wrote: “Knowing what we know about human nature, to let researchers evaluate the ethics of their own research is akin to the police judging other policemen or doctors judging other doctors. Virtually everyone would, in good faith but quite wrongly, consider their research ethically exemplary.”

At The Incidental Economist, Canadian psychologist Bill Gardner was also sceptical: “The only normative framework that has weight, by his lights, are the mortality and morbidity of disease. Of course mortality and morbidity are exceptionally important. But if that is the only framework that matters to Pinker he is in a very small minority.”

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