The Magazine

Can We Talk?

About the moral dimensions of science.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In the Shadow of Progress

Being Human in the Age of Technology

by Eric Cohen

Encounter, 181 pp., $21.95

Eric Cohen's measured, well-reasoned book on the ethical implications of new medical advances, In the Shadow of Progress, arrives like a spring breeze, fresh and calm and cleansing, something to be welcomed by anyone who follows bioethics and its controversies.

Let me tell you: It's getting brutal out there, this culture war between superstitious theocratic thugs and baby-killing pagan nihilists. By superstitious theocratic thugs, of course, I mean those religiously inclined folk who object to embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, genetic engineering, and other projects of today's biomedical science. The baby-killing pagan nihilists are the scientists themselves, or a lot of them anyway, along with their publicists and cheerleaders in the press, who think the objections to unfettered research are specious, irresponsible, and
murderous.

Foremost among the second group, the pagan nihilists, is Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard and a suave and gifted writer of popular science books. Pinker is rightly admired for his quick wit and light touch, yet even he has lately succumbed to the grinding, pitiless tone of the politico-cultural debate.

In a much-noticed, less-read article in the New Republic not long ago, called "The Stupidity of Dignity," he told a dark story of the reactionaries who would restrict the ability of scientists to do the research they want to do. The reactionaries form a "powerful" movement, Pinker said, that has its origin in such Christian strongholds as Georgetown University. The leader of this movement of Christian theocrats is--couldn't you just guess--a Jewish philosopher, Leon Kass. Like the Christian soldiers he captains, Kass is "pro-death [and] anti-freedom." His position as Maximum Leader was confirmed in 2001 when President Bush appointed him chairman of a government advisory council on bioethics. Kass proceeded to fill it with his theocratic allies. The council was stacked! When two commission members dared to oppose Kass on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research--he's against it--the chairman fired them. Just like that. As thugs do.

The thugs are philosophically shabby, too, according to Pinker. (This was the intellectual rather than the ad hominem part of his article.) Kass and his allies have fixated on this idea of "human dignity." Anytime a scientist wants to do something interesting with a human being, like harvest its stem cells or make an itty-bitty clone of it, Kass complains that the research violates something called human dignity. But the word "dignity" has too many meanings to be useful in describing reality, Pinker wrote. Much better, he said, to use the idea of "autonomy" as a guide to making judgments in bioethics. Autonomy is what makes human beings worthy of respect. Dignity, by contrast, is a "squishy, subjective notion," "slippery and ambiguous," "a mess."

Speaking of messes--Pinker's article not only lacked his usual humor and lightness of touch, it was unaccountably shot through with factual inaccuracies and clumsy thinking. Of the dozen blue-ribbon bioethics councils convened over the last 20 years, Kass's alone was genuinely diverse, as Pinker must know. It was the first not to be stacked with members of the research establishment, especially bioethicists in the employ of hospitals and corporations who all pretty much agree with each other. On Kass's panel there were researchers, philosophers, theologians, physicians, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists--even, God help us, a journalist.

In contrast to previous councils, Kass took care that his panel represented the full range of views on hot subjects like cloning and stem cells, from full-speed-ahead to whoa-nelly. And Pinker should have known the easily findable truth about those two "dismissed panelists." One was asked to leave because she attended fewer than half the council's meetings, and the other denied he was dismissed at all, in a public letter that praised Kass and the council's work. Other panelists who disagreed with Kass were never dismissed.

Along with the canards and the tone of paranoia, Pinker's piece was full of unintentional ironies. Shall we talk about "powerful movements"? Kass's band of skeptical bioethicists is dwarfed by the movement that Pinker is a member of, the one that aims to remove as many barriers to biomedical research as possible. This movement is lavishly funded by high-tech corporations, not-for-profit foundations, free-floating venture capitalists, and massively endowed research universities like that school in Cambridge where Pinker works.

The movement hires highly paid lobbyists, showers politicians in campaign money, and trumpets its message through most of the opinion-generating organs in the country, including a large majority of science reporters and newspaper editorial boards. In opposition to this roaring freight train is a little ragtag band of pro-lifers, Christers, biblical scholars, theologians, professors of philosophy at schools you've never heard of, and two or three magazines with circulations in the four figures. And Pinker pretends to find them ominous. It's odd how some big guys always complain they're being picked on by the little guys.

Oddest of all, though, was Pinker's own fixation on what he thinks is Kass's fixation. Surely Pinker's autonomy is just as slippery and subjective as Kass's dignity. That's the thing about ethics talk. Most of these phrases are slippery in one way or another, relying heavily on the context in which they're used and a certain good-faith assumption of shared understanding. Besides, autonomy is a strange idea for Pinker to champion as an ethical lodestar. Though he's always denied he's a "genetic determinist"--another slippery phrase--he has nonetheless been explicit in his belief that a person's sense of his own autonomy, also known as free will, is ultimately illusory. Pinker doesn't explain how an illusion can be a sound basis for thinking about what's ethical and what isn't.

And thinking, of course, is what bioethicists are supposed to do. It's nice work if you can get it, and no one approaches the task more carefully, more painstakingly than Eric Cohen (you thought I'd forgotten?). In the Shadow of Progress is a testament not only to his care but also to his stout heart. Cohen is a protégé of Kass (as well as an acquaintance of mine and occasional contributor to these pages). He knows that thinking long thoughts about technology's moral consequences and cultural effects is not something many of us are inclined to do, especially when it comes to questioning the riches that technological progress has brought us: Start with indoor plumbing and dental floss and work your way up to the polio vaccine and quadruple bypass surgery, and you've got a sense of what we owe to science and technology. And it simply doesn't occur to most people to think that material advances might come at a spiritual or moral cost. We assume the wonders of technology arrive no-strings-attached.

But what if they don't? Nuclear fission, Cohen points out, is a plain example: The technology that might provide us with safe, unlimited power generation might also, placed in the wrong hands, lead to mass slaughter. The same goes for biomedicines that increase our powers to heal--and also the capacity of terrorists to do their worst. With gratitude for "the tremendous blessings of the modern age," Cohen nonetheless writes that "this book aims, with some trepidation, to lean against America's faith in progress .  .  . the book questions progress by exploring its incompleteness as an answer to man's deepest longings--the longing to be loved, the longing to be virtuous, the longing to be redeemed."

Cohen's "trepidation" is well-placed. It's a thankless task he's set himself, standing athwart technological progress and shouting, if not "Stop," then at least "Can't we talk this over for a minute?" News about medicine and technology comes to us filtered through the superficiality of popular journalism, which doesn't have much room for pondering long-term effects, as watchers of The Today Show and The View may have noticed. ("Up next, a fresh look at our longing to be redeemed!") The only criticism you'll find of new technologies in the popular press turns on whether they're "safe" or "unsafe."

Pinker and other publicists of the new science do their own share of complaining about the "built-in biases" of science journalism, but even they must admit that the mass media prefer breathless reporting of wondrous discoveries to a good chin wag about what the unintended and unhappy consequences of those discoveries might be. The popular presentation of technology is sharply disposed toward the uncritical. Scientists are always the good guys, and party-pooper Jeremiahs like Kass and Cohen wind up getting the Pinker treatment.

But if you've managed to resist the happy talk about unimpeded technological progress--whether the fatuous variety on the network news or Pinker's more sophisticated version--you will find in Cohen a provocative guide, with a sharp eye for paradox and an appreciation of ambiguity. He notes how strange it is that scientists who proudly describe themselves as materialists and naturalists should show such a disdain for matter and for the limits that nature imposes on us. But this is part of a larger paradox that Cohen sees lurking behind the secular faith of modern science: "an extreme belief in both human greatness and human smallness." Human greatness is seen in the confidence that scientists have in their ability to manipulate nature, grasp it with their intelligence and bend it to their will. At the same time the final triviality of human beings is seen in science's view of human origins: "its view of man as emerging from the dust of the ground," with no higher obligation or purpose built into the fact of his existence.

Taken together the two ideas make for a creepy and combustible blend--as imaginative artists from Hesiod to Hawthorne have tried to show.

It's all the creepier as the success and power of science increase. Not only has the new science given us the ability to harvest human embryos and pick them apart for the useful bits--always, of course, with the noblest intentions--it has also allowed for pre-genetic screening of fetuses in the womb, so that those not suited to our tastes can be identified and discarded. It has brought us to the brink of cloning and man/animal hybrids--always, of course, for research purposes only. Through psychotropic drugs it allows for the minute manipulation of consciousness, reprogramming faculties like memory and perception, refashioning the self.

In the face of these awesome powers we tend to forget that the expertise of scientists is limited. They can tell us whether such things can be done. Whether they should be done is a question for all of us--a matter on which scientists have no special claim to expertise.

Addressing this second question, Cohen writes, "requires not just the peer review of fellow scientists"--or, for that matter, the say-so of bioethicists on their payroll. "It requires moral deliberation and democratic debate, and in some cases it requires the willingness to say 'no,' 'stop,' or 'here but no further.'"

Saying no may be harder now than ever, owing partly to the dazzling temptations of the new science, but also to a change in the democratic tide. The political push for unlimited scientific research has made for strange bedfellows. Not so long ago, "it seemed as though the culture of technology and the counterculture were mortal enemies. The machine vs. the spirit. Rational investigation vs. Dionysian feeling. Gradual progress vs. spontaneous liberation." But now, Cohen says, the two opposing strains have discovered a more fundamental unity: "a connection grounded in the belief that human limits should be overcome, taboos are anathema, and human shame is an illusion. Both cultures believe that no knowledge or experience should be off-limits."

The promise of the new science, with its hope of liberation from nature and its ancient constraints, has brought the counterculture together with the culture of technology and commerce it once despised. Politically the combination seems unstoppable, thanks in part to publicists like Pinker.

"What do we live for?" That, Cohen writes, is "the central question of bioethics." People dislike the deep-digging bioethics of Kass and Cohen because they dislike being confronted with the question. It is, by democratic custom, a question that everyone is supposed to answer for himself--a private matter ill-suited to bickering in the public square. And we especially dislike imposing our answer, our "values," on others, so we tell ourselves.

At first glance, this is a position worthy of respect, showing a kind of modesty that democracies can't survive without. It would be more convincing, though, if we weren't already trying to impose our values on one another all the time anyway. The question "What do we live for?" is unavoidable. Every step of the new science's accelerating progress throws it right back at us. Those who want an unlimited pursuit of embryonic stem cell research, for instance--they declare their modesty by refusing to make a judgment about the moral status of the embryo, and then immodestly work to impose their agnosticism by law, as a general principle.

When it comes to the new science, even declining to impose our values is an imposition of values. Refusing to try to answer the question "What do we live for?" is an answer to the question. And a pretty sneaky answer it is, too.

Eric Cohen deserves our admiration for having the nerve to raise the question and to answer it--in good faith and in public. Amazing, for a theocrat.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.