The Magazine

Can We Talk?

About the moral dimensions of science.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.