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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?

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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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.