Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Progress, Scientific and Moral?

The Bush administration is now calling research embryos "human subjects" in the charter of the federal advisory committee responsible for the safety of research volunteers. This new status of embryos does not mandate that they be given the same protections as fetuses, but it has some scientists up in arms. Robert Rich, executive associate dean of research at Emory University School of Medicine, is concerned that the change in language will "serve to politicize the reconstituted committee," and complained that the issue of research on embryos "is governed by emotions and beliefs and is really not amenable to rational or scientific discourse."

Natural scientist that he is, Dean Rich is apparently not satisfied with answers to questions that are less than mathematically precise, as answers to political and moral questions often are; his neat, abstract thinking prevents him from taking the messiness of human emotions seriously. Therefore, he proposes to eliminate the questions; in his view, science should be off-limits to political scrutiny. Unacknowledged in this sentiment is the questionable assumption that scientific progress necessarily means moral and political progress. Additionally, it is assumed that the desire to heal is somehow beyond or above normal political debate; it is self-evidently noble and therefore untouchable. All of this, of course, exhibits the typical thoughtlessness of scientists when they are confronted with moral and political questions. The problem is not that political and moral questions do not admit of scientific analysis; it is that modern natural scientists are so mired in the prejudice that they simply confer benefits on humanity at large that they cannot think rationaly about what they do and about the consequences of their activities. They are irrational about their brand of rationalism. They are fanatics.

Luckily, Leon Kass is not the typical natural scientist, despite his impeccable scientific credentials. His council's report on human cloning which IA summarized previously is precisely what most natural scientists need to read. Among the serious issues that the Kass Council raises in its report are the relationship of one generation to the next, the limits of parenthood, the implications for human dignity of cloning-for-reasearch, and the proper posture of the physician and science on healing and death. The very freedom that Dean Rich demands for science may very well prohibit embryonic manipulation and the tyrannizing of one generation by another (indeed cloning is so bizarre that it is difficult to use the word "generation" in describing the differences between a sexually generated being and an asexually generated one). Moreover, the benefit to the sick and dying that Dean Rich demands (he really is as emotionally-motivated as anyone), may conflict with human dignity; overcoming death at any cost may not be so noble. Scientists like Dean Rich have obviously thought so little both about these important questions which they dismiss as "emotional" and not amenable to scienctific discourse and about their own emotional investment in their activities that it is difficult to know where to begin in educating them. The Kass Council's report is a good a place as any for them to embark on a deeper kind of learning than they are accustomed.


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