Bioethics Blogs

Is Bioethics Too Powerful?

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In an August 2015 Boston Globe opinion piece, Steven Pinker—professor of psychology at Harvard—wrote that bioethics should “Get out of the way” of medical research and technological advancement. He states that bioethics “bog[s] down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution base on nebulous but sweeping principles such as ‘dignity,’ ‘sacredness,’ or ‘social justice’.” He goes on to say that bioethics “thwarts” research by “sowing panic about speculative harms” such as making analogies to Nazi medical experiments or referring to science fiction.

In a companion piece, Sally Satel—a methadone clinic staff psychiatrist and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative public policy think tank) —wrote in September 2015 that Pinker’s piece was a “live grenade lobbed into the field of bioethics.” Satel states that bioethicists should never give opinions, but should only “objectively delineate value conflicts intrinsic to the ethical dilemma at hand…bioethicists’ normative views should not be given greater weight.” An objective ethics? So far science has not found the ethics particle only us humans trying to do our best.

The crime that both seem to charge bioethics with is being too influential in the sphere of public and government opinion. [The following should be read with sarcasm:] In my Medical Humanities PhD program, I must have been excused from the course on Demagoguery and Undermining the Scientific Enterprise. As part of a small field, I think I would have had an inkling if we were purposely holding back progress or were part of a secret cabal controlling the government [again, more sarcasm].

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.