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Pinker Takes on Bioethics

By Michael Cook

Steven Pinker has attacked bioethics as “moralistic grandstanding” that restricts research. Is he right?

Every once in a while a column about bioethical quandaries ought to dust off the handbook of first principles. Why do we need bioethics anyway? No bioethics, no quandaries. Not just dusted off, but done and dusted. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? It would certainly make my job easier.

This is the challenge set down by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Prof Steven Pinker of Harvard University. An expert in psychology and linguistics, Pinker is a one-man ideas machine, churning out books on cognitive science, psycholinguistics, evolutionary psychology, how to write non-fiction, and the history of violence. And during his summer holidays he lobs grenades into bioethicists’ cloistered walkways.

His latest assault on bioethics sparked a noisy debate and even an article in Nature. In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, Pinker argued that “the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence. Get out of the way.”

To say that Pinker warmed to his subject is an understatement. He became incandescent:

“A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as ‘dignity’, ‘sacredness’ or ‘social justice’. Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.”

What about prudence? What about the precautionary principle? What about the sanctity of life? Bosh, all bosh, according to Pinker.

“[S]lowing down research has a massive human cost. Even a one-year delay in implementing an effective treatment could spell death, suffering, or disability for millions of people.”

Blogs by bioethicists started to light up like Christmas trees. Surprisingly, a few academic bioethicists were quite sympathetic. Russell Blackford of the University of Newcastle wrote: “The view that he has stated, admittedly in a polemical way, is a perfectly respectable one within the field of bioethics”.

What lit Pinker’s fuse, it seems was Crispr, the new gene-editing technology that allows scientists to “edit” the genome by deleting or adding DNA sequences (Quandary, July/August 2015). While this will be valuable for scientists tinkering with genetically modified plants, animals and other organisms, it also makes possible genetically modified humans. For that reason, eminent scientists have called for a moratorium on its use on human embryos and germ cells.

But Pinker disagrees vehemently. He disdains woolly words like “human dignity” and “sacredness”. Approaching bioethics as a no-nonsense consequentialist, he says that lives could be saved with this technology and there is no time to waste on the endless merry-go-round of what-if and the chatter of institutional review boards.

“A truly ethical bioethics,” he says, “should justify any restrictions on research with rigorous, defensible arguments about benefit and harm, not with moralistic grandstanding, science fiction dystopias, perverse analogies to Nazis and nuclear weapons, esoteric theories pulled out of the air, or freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs.”

Is Pinker right? Would we be better off without those meddling, paper-pushing bioethicists? No, for two reasons.

First, we need to act ethically. That is part of what it means to be a human being and to live in a democratic society. Can we be sure that Pinker’s system of calculating the net benefit is ethical? It was this reasoning that justified dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. So we need bioethical blathering, sorry, debate so that we can reach the right decision.

Second, it’s naïve to think that scientists will all behave ethically. As Daniel Sokol, an ethicist and barrister in London, observed: “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.”

Pinker’s exasperation with tedious meetings and unnecessary paperwork is understandable. Let’s save time and forests by making them as streamlined as possible. But Crispr and other technologies do pose moral challenges. If we shove bioethics aside, we leave the solutions up to bean-counters and scientists. I’m not sure that I want to live in a society like that.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.