When people who don’t know me ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a philosopher. When they ask me what I specialise in, I tell them that I am mostly, even though I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that label, an ethicist. This used to be a good thing, or at least not a bad one, but things are changing. People like me are now increasingly being described as at best a nuisance, and at worst a threat to human well-being and possibly even survival.
In this vein, Steven Pinker, the well-known psychologist and bestselling author, has recently (1 August 2015) published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, entitled “The moral imperative for bioethics,” in which he chides ethicists for hindering the progress of our species. According to Pinker, biotechnology could do amazing things for us if we only stopped hampering research by raising flimsy ethical concerns about it, which is not helpful at all. Scientific and technological progress is already slow enough as it is, and given the “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing” that biomedical research promises, every day we lose worrying about the ethics of the matter is one day too many. While biotechnological research is urgently needed to rid us of all sorts of terrible diseases, what we most certainly do not need are professional worriers who call themselves ethicists second-guessing every promising new development and thus stalling scientific and technological progress by throwing “nebulous but sweeping principles such as ‘dignity’, ‘sacredness’, or ‘social justice’” in its way. A true ethicist, Pinker decrees, would realize that there is in fact only one valid moral imperative they should promote and follow, namely to “get out of the way”.
For Pinker and others like him ethics is a luxury that we cannot afford. People are dying, people are suffering. The biotech industry is attempting to do something about it, working very hard to succeed, while the “so-called ethicists” are attempting to prevent this from happening. Humanity is painfully pushing a rock up a hill, while all that ethicists are doing is help push it back down again. For Pinker it is as simple as that. Except of course it is not. Surprising as it may be, it is in fact not the primary goal of us ethicists to make life difficult for those who want nothing but make the world a better place. Ethics is not about issuing “red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution” (although ethical reflection may occasionally give rise to all that). Instead, ethics is about making sure that we know what we are doing and why we are doing it, that the path we are following is really the path we want to be following and that the place where this path is likely to lead us is really the place where we want to end up being.
We all, naturally, want things to be better than they are, if that is possible. We all want progress. But just as nothing is ever better as such, but only ever in certain respects, there is no such thing as progress as such, or in the abstract. We are not sitting in an evolutionary elevator that has only two directions: up and down. Instead, there are many different ways of going up and going forward, many different ways of going down and backwards, and many different ways of going sideways, or around in circles, or of moving without any clear direction at all. Moreover, the ways that lead upwards in some way may also lead downwards in some other way. Things are usually more complex than we would like, and for this very reason also more complex than we may care to acknowledge. In order to progress, to step forward, you need to have a goal, or at least have made up your mind about a direction. Spending a thought or two on the reasons for choosing that particular goal or direction before you start running doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. And that is all we are doing when we are engaging in ethical reflection. The one question that ethicists keep asking is whether the things we do or propose to do are actually good for us, all things considered. Would we really prefer that this question be no longer asked?
It is highly naïve to assume that all biomedical research will necessarily benefit some of us, let alone humanity as a whole. What is powerful enough to save us is also powerful enough to harm us. To demand that such research not be regulated in any way because some of it might eventually help us find a cure for Alzheimer's and other diseases is like saying that politicians in government should be granted unlimited legislative, judiciary and executive power and not be checked in any way because some politicians might actually use that power for the good of the people: we just need to trust that they know best and that they want only what is best for us. But why should we believe that?
I suppose most people would agree that granting such unlimited powers to politicians would be a singularly bad idea, and that, even if scientists and biotech firms were generally smarter and more trustworthy than politicians, they are certainly not trustworthy enough that we could afford not putting any regulations and safeguards in place and thereby retaining some measure of control. Ethical reflection helps us determine the nature and extent of those necessary safeguards. Ideas such as human dignity, sacredness, and social justice may strike tough-minded empiricists like Pinker as decidedly airy-fairy and not worth serious consideration, but even though they are a bit airy-fairy, for many of us they do capture something that is both elusive and very real, a sense perhaps that living disease-free and surviving as long as possible is not all that matters, that sometimes more is at stake, that there are other dimensions of our life and experience that are important to us and for us, whatever they may be. Ethicists are the ones who try to figure out what those dimensions are and why they matter to us. They are not the professional doomsayers that some like to depict them as. Their role is more that of psychopomps who guide us from the present to the future, providing safe passage and making sure that we get there safe and sound.