March 09, 2004

The poisonous embrace of ethics

Posted by Curt at 02:24 PM in Science | TrackBack

While it may be true that I expend too many words in this blog attacking various targets right and left, without method or organization, I still sometimes feel that I don’t have enough time to challenge the legitimacy of all the heathen idols that I would like to. For example: “bioethicists.” I don’t think that this server has enough storage capacity for me to answer the question of why “bioethicists” even exist or why we should (or shouldn’t) listen to a damn thing they say, so this might be one case in which it would behoove me to move straight to specifics rather than, as is my wont, lingering among abstract first principles. Here is an excellent Glenn Reynolds posting, with numerous links, on the pseudo-controversy surrounding the “stacking” of the President’s Council on Bioethics, the body which has made quite an international name for itself in the last couple of years with its recommendations on stem-cell research, among other things. Well, who knows whether Bush or any of his minions would have been greatly influenced by this committee no matter what they recommended, but the point is that it provided a veneer of scientific and ethical legitimacy to the ban on stem-cell research and any other laws on bioengineering that the president chooses to propose, so its motives warrant examination.

Maybe the best example of the point that I am fishing my way towards is best demonstrated by this example that Reynolds links to, which ostensibly has nothing to do with bioethics, namely the feelings of the head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, on the subject of eating in public. Well, fine, here is the relevant paragraph:

“Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone —a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

I fear I may by this remark lose the sympathy of many reader, people who will condescendingly regard as quaint or even priggish the view that eating in the street is for dogs. Modern America’s rising tide of informality has already washed out many long-standing traditions — their reasons long before forgotten — that served well to regulate the boundary between public and private; and in many quarters complete shamelessness is treated as proof of genuine liberation from the allegedly arbitrary constraints of manners. To cite one small example: yawning with uncovered mouth. Not just the uneducated rustic but children of the cultural elite are now regularly seen yawning openly in public (not so much brazenly or forgetfully as indifferently and “naturally”), unaware that it is an embarrassment to human self-command to be caught in the grip of involuntary bodily movements (like sneezing, belching, and hiccuping and even the involuntary bodily display of embarrassment itself, blushing). But eating on the street — even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat — displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.”

I’m not sure that this view is “quaint,” but it is certainly “priggish” as well as petty-minded to an almost incredible degree (relevant Bill Hicks quote: “I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I recommend you look around the world in which we live, and shut your fucking mouth”) but that is only partly the reason I think it sheds light on the tone of the bioethics debate. Notice how he phrases his condemnation of eating in public. He does not say: “I don’t eat in public because I feel it shows a mawkish lack of self-control,” but rather: “This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.” Granted, he does not say that there ought to be a law against eating in public, but he does say that it “ought to be kept from public view” much as, I suppose, vagrants are “kept from public view.” So Kass dislikes eating in public because he is disgusted by the fact that people feel so “liberated” that they can do whatever they like with no self-restraint, but Kass himself feels that people have so little ability to control themselves that they ought to be restrained from behaving as they see fit, even if those actions, like eating in public, have absolutely no effect on anyone around them (except, evidently, for Kass and those like him, who are “offended”). I leave it for you to judge who has more respect for individual self-sufficiency and self-control. I think this may shed a little bit of light on Kass’ mentality, and as arguably the most powerful “bioethicist” in the country, it seems somewhat relevant, especially if he is at all representative of bioethicists today, or even of the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics (who are all selected by him). And actually, that example, it seems to me, is a surprisingly exact corollary, minus the alleged ethical and religious issues involved, to the abortion debate itself, in which the views of those who insist on the ultimate control of the individual over themselves and all that is within their body are opposed to those who believe that, evidently, each person’s cycles of self-maintenance and reproduction are within the public weal to control. It is interesting that Kass, once again, this ostensible champion of “self-control,” should on this issue, as well, have so little regard for the determinative capacity of the individual.

I don’t know when life can be definitively established to “begin” among the unborn, but I do know that up until almost the moment of birth they are not self-sufficient life forms, any more than is a liver or a leg, and I am not sure that it can be consistently argued that fetusus, which have not biological independence nor self-sufficiency, are fully the moral equals of living humans, while animals, which have, are not. But in any case, while I have been trying to focus on the specific issue at hand to avoid blanket condemnations of “bioethics,” now I find that it seems less relevant to me whether the PCB is actually stacked with pro-lifers, or even that there is a ban on stem-cell research, than what it means that there is such a thing as the “President’s Council on Bioethics” at all. Presumably such a thing could only have arisen from the assumption that ethical considerations should shape public policy, which, as I have said before, is not only a common intellecutual error, but a deliberate falsehood and manipulation propogated to grant the law a moral legitimacy that it has no claim to. As for the field of “bioethics” itself, I can understand the need to fully grasp the actual scientific issues and concepts involved in a particular question in order to make moral decisions about it, which obviously most people outside of the scientific community do not, but at the same time I am equally inclined to imagine that the scientists doing the research in question, who presumably do, probably have as well-developed a moral intuition as the average citizen or “bioethicist,” and so I would guess that he or she would be able to assess the ethical validity of what they are doing just as well as a no doubt highly educated “bioethicist” (unless of course you believe that professors of ethics, by dint of their study of ethics, are actually more capable of making virtuous moral choices than everyone else). So maybe I have arrived at a more general condemnation of “bioethics” after all: it strikes me as a bit presumptuous to claim not only that special academic qualification is required to understand scientific research, which is defensible, but that it is also required to make moral decisions, which is not (I am aware that this criticism could be equally well-applied to ethicists in general, but I feel that ethics by itself has less of a forbidding air of erudition surrounding it than “bioethics,” and hence is less in need of iconoclasm; most people, by virtue of their moral intuition, would probably feel more confident to challenge Kant than they would Leon Kass).


I like this one; I have similar thoughts about bioethics myself.

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Posted by: Reason at March 14, 2004 10:04 PM
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March 14, 2004 10:25 PM
Back to Castigating Bioethics
Excerpt: While out browsing the blogosphere, I came across an interesting post on bioethics at Selling Waves. It's good to know that I'm not the only person in the world unhappy with the modern state and influence of bioethics. The outrage...