Steven Pinker on “The moral imperative for bioethics”

According to Steven Pinker in The moral imperative for bioethics, an opinion piece he recently wrote for the Boston Globe,

…the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.  Get out of the way.

I would strengthen that a bit to something like, “Stop the mental masturbation and climb back into the real world.”  At some level Pinker is aware of the fact that bioethicists and other “experts” in morality are not nearly as useful to the rest of us as they think they are.  He just doesn’t understand why.  As a result he makes the mistake of conceding the objective relevance of morality in solving problems germane to the field of biotechnology.  The fundamental problem is that these people are chasing after imaginary objects, things that aren’t real.  They have bamboozled the rest of us into taking them seriously because we have been hoodwinked by our emotional baggage just as effectively as they have.  There is no premium on reality as far as evolution is concerned.  There is a premium on survival.  We perceive “good” and “evil” as real objects, not because they actually are real objects, but because our ancestors were more likely to pass on the relevant genes if they perceived these fantasies as real things.  Bioethics is just one of the many artifacts of this delusion.

Consider what the bioethicists are really claiming.  They are saying that mental impressions that exist because they happened to improve the evolutionary fitness of a species of advanced, highly social, bipedal apes correspond to real things, commonly referred to as “good” and “evil,” that have some kind of an objective existence independent of the minds of those creatures.  Not only that, but if one can but capture these objects, which happen to be extremely elusive and slippery, one can apply them to make decisions in the field of biotechnology, which didn’t exist when the mental equipment that gives rise to the impressions in question evolved.  Consider these extracts from the online conversation:

Carl Elliot, at his blog, Fear and Loathing in Bioethics,

Forget Tuskegee. Forget Willowbrook and Holmesburg Prison. Pay no attention to the research subjects who died at Kano, Auckland Women’s Hospital or the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Never mind about Jesse Gelsinger, Ellen Roche, Nicole Wan, Tracy Johnson or Dan Markingson. According to Steven Pinker, “we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.”  So bioethicists should just shut up about abuses and let smart people like him get on with their work.

Pinker:

Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous. But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.

Julian Savulescu at the Practical Ethics website:

What we need is less obstruction of good and ethical research, as Pinker correctly observes, and more vigilance at picking up unethical research. This requires competent, professional and trained bioethicists and improvement of ethics review processes.

Daniel K. Sokol, also at Practical Ethics:

The idea that research that has the potential to cause harm should be subject to ethical review should not be controversial in the 21st century. The words “this project has been reviewed and approved by the Research Ethics Committee” offers some reassurance that the welfare of participants has been duly considered. The thought of biomedical research without ethical review is a frightening one.

Pinker:

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”

One imagines oneself in Bedlam.  These people are all trying to address what most people would agree is a real problem.  They understand that most people don’t want to be victims of anything like the Tuskegee experiments.  They also grasp the fact that most people would prefer to live longer, healthier lives.  True, these, too, are merely subjective goals, whims if you will, but they are whims that most of us will agree with.  The whims aren’t the problem.  The problem is that we are trying to apply a useless tool to reach the goals; human moral emotions.  We are trying to establish truths by consulting emotions to which no truth claims can possibly apply.  Stuart Rennie got it right in spite of himself in his attack on Pinker at his Global Bioethics Blog:

My first reaction was: how is this new bioethics skill taught? Should there be classes that teach it in a stepwise manner, i.e. where you first learn not to butt in, then how to just step a bit aside, followed by somewhat getting out of the way, and culminating in totally screwing off? What would the syllabus look like? Wouldn’t avoiding bioethics class altogether be a sign of success?

Pinker, too, iterates to an entirely rational final sentence in his opinion piece:

Biomedical research will always be closer to Sisyphus than a runaway train — and the last thing we need is a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.

I, too, would prefer not to be a Tuskegee guinea pig.  I, too, would like to live longer and be healthier.  I simply believe that emotional predispositions that exist because they happen to have been successful in regulating the social interactions within and among small groups of hunter-gatherers millennia ago, are unlikely to be the best tools to achieve those ends.

bedlam

2 thoughts on “Steven Pinker on “The moral imperative for bioethics””

  1. Pinker increasingly worries me.
    His comments re the so called reduction in human aggression has troubled me for sometime.
    A reduction in violence in society surely suggests greater force exhibited by the state, but I digress.
    Christian hystericals believe the second coming will happen in their lives, its a projection, proof of their centrality. Change in their time, change from millenia of lorenzian, ardreyish boring grinding tedious human nature/instinct.
    How amazing that Mr Pinker should arrive with answers to explain. Wonderful. Thrilled really.
    Surprising he even needs any new research.

  2. Yes, Pinker’s message now resembles that of the Blank Slaters of old; culture trumps human nature and is leading to the brave new world of non-violence and “inclusiveness.” That message certainly resonates with the ideological shibboleths of his academic ingroup. However, it strikes me as extremely dangerous in a world full of nuclear weapons with increasing numbers of states gaining access to nuclear weapons and/or the special nuclear materials needed to make them.

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