Barry Hoffmaster discusses Steven Pinker’s call for bioethics to “get out of the way.”
What should be made of Steven Pinker’s controversial call for bioethics to “get out of the way” of research?
His criticisms are jumbled. A “truly ethical bioethics” should not create red tape, impose moratoria, or issue threats of prosecution. Vague concepts such as dignity, sacredness, and social justice should be avoided. “Freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs” are just as preposterous as many of the thought experiments in philosophy. Mainstream bioethics produces “confused claims based on emotion and wooly thinking,” and “many bioethicists practice bad moral philosophy.” Bioethicists have conflicts of interest because “institutionalized bioethics has become an academic and bureaucratic industry.” Determining whether research protocols that involve human subjects are permissible is difficult because the potential benefits and harms are unpredictable. Pinker cites examples of anticipated benefits that did not materialize, such as antioxidants, Vioxx, and hormone replacement therapy, and harms that did not occur from, for example, vaccination, transfusions, anesthesia, artificial insemination, organ transplantation, and in vitro fertilization. Research ethics is where “mainstream bioethics gets in the way on a massive scale.”
Despite his dismissal of orthodox bioethics, Pinker believes that bioethics is important. He wants to free research from the mainstream bioethics that he depicts unflatteringly, but not inaccurately. To preserve bioethics, then, he has to provide an alternative conception of bioethics. He endorses a bioethics grounded in the work of Sally Satel, which directs bioethicists “to engage in disciplined moral inquiry.”
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