Why are "ethical debates" about science so predictable?

It’s time for an ethical debate on human cloning. Go for it.

What I have just written isn’t an endorsement of the debate. It was a description of its content. And if you find that content disappointing I would urge you to be very wary of this whole concept of “ethical debates” and especially of “ethicisticism” or whatever they call that thing trained professional ethicists do that is far too deep for ordinary minds to grasp.

Except the bit where “Do whatever thou wilt” is the key premise and result.

Consider the news, in Canada’s National Post on January 25, that Chinese scientists successfully cloned primates, using the same techniques that produced the Dolly the sheep breakthrough in 1996.

A Michigan State University scientist said crossing the primate barrier means human cloning could become possible but would currently be “criminal” because the present unreliability of the procedure would mean much suffering due to so many lost pregnancies. But currently is the key word.

The Chinese team led by Mu-ming Poo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences used over 100 eggs to clone the monkeys, and had to transplant DNA from a foetus. But mighty technological oaks grow from tiny acorns at blinding speed nowadays. By February 17 the Daily Telegraph was chirping that “Human-sheep hybrids have been created by scientists for the first time, opening the door to organs being grown inside the farmyard animals for use in transplants or to cure diabetes.”

Technical obstacles won’t bail us out for long here. And if the process ever did become feasible for humans, the MSU scientist said, we would face “a big ethical dilemma”. But what exactly is this “dilemma”?

Presumably there’s something compelling to be said for and against doing it. On the plus side, we gain still more power over nature. On the minus… um… it’s taboo?

I’m not much of one for talk of “conflicting rights” or even moral dilemmas. Real rights don’t conflict because my right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts. And moral dilemmas usually arise because we know we’re meant to do something difficult or unpleasant, or want something we’re not entitled to and invent a “right” not to be offended, to pay less rent than the landlord is willing to accept, or to disregard the sanctity of life.

The “ethical dilemmas” mentioned by scientists seem to me illusory in the opposite direction. While morals are grounded in eternal truths and seek to understand long-standing rules, the common understanding of “ethics” is that it is a branch of social science that seeks to debunk them. People always say that we must have an “ethical debate” about an issue like euthanasia.

But it always turns out there’s nothing to say because there’s no “there” there. And because the general presumption of ethicists is that any long-standing prohibition is irrational, primitive and cruel, it doesn’t take long to say it.

Perhaps my argument seems simplistic. But when is the last time an “ethical debate” convoked by scientists led to the decision that although we could do something, and some of us felt like it, we must not?

As was noted in MercatorNet, Ontario doctors who objected to medically assisted dying, contraception or abortion recently lost a court case over the positive obligation to refer patients to another doctor who would do so.

The court was quite brusque, saying the obligation wasn’t a big deal and besides “the applicants do not have a common law right or a property right to practise medicine, much less a constitutionally protected right”.

Dying with Dignity predictably said “We believe the effective referral policy strikes a fair, sensible balance between a physician’s right to conscience or moral objection and a patient’s right to care” and one grouch said Sweden and Finland don’t even let doctors make referrals, insisting they do the procedure themselves because “With future developments in medicine, we will never be able to predict what the latest thing is that somebody will object to do”.

According to this line of reasoning – if you can dignify it with the label “reasoning” -- the “sensible balance” is, predictably, that doctors have no conscience rights. And we can be quite sure how far they or anyone will get in their objection to whatever the next “latest thing” is that somebody wants to do.

The moral argument against human cloning is, like that against abortion or euthanasia, grounded in a transcendent vision of human dignity. And of course not everyone agrees that man is made in the image of God, or that we cannot have human dignity otherwise.

But on what subject has an “ethical” scientific debate ever led to the conclusion that something new should be prohibited?

The difficulty isn’t that some people call any such thing “ethical”. It’s that the professional ethicists never seem to call anything unethical except established beliefs and habits.

It starts small; Mu-ming Poo insists his team has no plan to clone human babies and believes, according to the National Post, “society would ban it for ethical reasons.” It’s this is just about making monkeys for medical research to benefit old-fashioned people.

But that’s how it always starts. Very small. Thus the Post cited one Stanford University law professor who admits people might want to clone a dead child but doubts there’s “compelling enough reason to undertake the extensive and costly effort needed to get such a procedure approved, at least for ‘decades and decades.’”

In short, it will come soon.

The bottom line is that “ethics” are a hollow substitute for morals that never stand in the way of doing what we can do and feel inclined to. The approval of each new bursting of physical or moral boundaries is built into the mental structure of “progressivism, understood not simply as “leftism” but as the modern Promethean impulse that unites social engineers with anarcho-libertarian capitalists and Randian/Nietzcheans who create their own values. Once again, we shall vanquish death.

J. Budziszewski recently noted that people who seek to discard old morality for new are caught in a contradiction, because the only way to judge and reject old morality is with some other morality you already have. “The whole meaning of morality is a rule that we ought to obey whether we like it or not. If so, then the idea of creating a morality we like better fails to grasp what morality is. Moreover, it would seem that until we had created our new morality, we would have no standard by which to criticize God.”

Except, of course, the urge to disobey him and make ourselves as gods.

We are still ashamed simply to endorse Pantagruel’s “Do what thou wilt” because in our hearts we know our will is corrupt. But inventing a fancy term does not solve the problem. It just puts a fig leaf over it. So what we need is a moral debate on ethicism, not an ethical debate on nothing.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca. 


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