A number of outlets are reporting this week on a new survey that reveals a wariness among American adults toward biotechnologies that can be used for enhancement purposes. The survey of 4,700 adults also involved six focus groups to allow researchers to delve into the reasons behind the survey responses.
The main takeaways from the survey are (1) Americans in general are concerned—many are deeply concerned—about the use of biotechnologies for enhancement purposes (rather than for therapeutic or restorative purposes), (2) there is an expectation that scientists will keep pushing ahead with new biotechnologies even when the technologies and their effects are not completely or clearly understood, and (3) people’s views on all this are heavily influenced by their religious views.
In my view, this wariness is a good thing. It presents an opportunity to discuss the distinction between enhancement and therapy, which is a societal conversation that is long overdue. The President’s Council on Bioethics took up this topic in 2002-2003, and their work and report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, are as relevant now as ever (and available in full for free online!).
Second, there are indeed scientists who push ahead without fully understanding the technologies and their effects. To some degree, of course, this is a necessary aspect of the scientific process—hypothesize, test, evaluate; re-hypothesize, test again, and so on—so I do not want to be overly critical of the general concept. But among scientists there needs to be more attention to ethics, seeking to better understand not only the consequences of the science, but also the deeper beliefs and the larger moral imperatives that are part of our shared humanity. In addition, a fully transparent process of ethical reflection on biotechnological development and implementation is necessary.
You may recall that last year the CBC staff attended a conference entitled “BEINGS 2015: Biotech and the Ethical Imagination” where we heard Harvard Professor Steven Pinker argue that the guiding principle of ethics should be, and I quote, “stay out of the way.” This sentiment has no place in science or biotech, and should have been widely and roundly denounced. I am not aware that it has been. That is a real problem.
On the third point, I am not surprised to hear that religious views are a large factor in people’s attitudes. Belief that there is someone or something outside of and beyond us who, as many believe, actively seeks a relationship with us, does indeed alter the ways in which we perceive the world, and our perspective on the kinds of things we are and are not to pursue. Such a perspective should point to considerations beyond a simple calculation of benefits and burdens, that is, beyond questions of, “does this more or less work out okay most of the time?”
There may be valuable scientific knowledge which it is morally impossible to obtain. There may be truths which would be of great and lasting benefit to mankind if they could be discovered, but which cannot be discovered without systematic and sustained violations of legitimate moral imperatives.
If we forget this, or if we intentionally move away from it, we do so at our own peril.
As the headline of this post indicates, much of this falls under the heading of Faking Life. This is an area of particular interest to me, and I am working on adding to and fleshing out our CBC resources on the topic. Look for much more on this from me in the coming weeks and months.