Ethical questions and frivolous consciences

Our Futurisms colleague Charlie Rubin had a smart, short piece over on the Huffington Post a couple weeks ago called “We Need To Do More Than Just Point to Ethical Questions About Artificial Intelligence.” Responding to the recent (and much ballyhooed) “open letter” about artificial intelligence published by the Future of Life Institute, Professor Rubin writes:

One might think that such vagueness is just the result of a desire to draft a letter that a large number of people might be willing to sign on to. Yet in fact, the combination of gesturing towards what are usually called “important ethical issues,” while steadfastly putting off serious discussion of them, is pretty typical in our technology debates. We do not live in a time that gives much real thought to ethics, despite the many challenges you might think would call for it. We are hamstrung by a certain pervasive moral relativism, a sense that when you get right down to it, our “values” are purely subjective and, as such, really beyond any kind of rational discourse. Like “religion,” they are better left un-discussed in polite company….

No one doubts that the world is changing and changing rapidly. Organizations that want to work towards making change happen for the better will need to do much more than point piously at “important ethical questions.”

This is an excellent point. I can’t count how many bioethics talks I have heard over the years that just raise questions without attempting to answer them. It seems like some folks in bioethics have made their whole careers out of such chin-scratching.

And not only is raising ethical questions easier than answering them, but (as Professor Rubin notes) it can also be a potent rhetorical tactic, serving as a substitute for real ethical debate. When an ethically dubious activity attracts attention from critics, people who support that activity sometimes allude to the need for a debate about ethics and policy, and then act as though calling for an ethical debate is itself an ethical debate. It’s a way of treating ethical problems as obstacles to progress that need to be gotten around rather than as legitimate reasons not to do the ethically dubious thing.

Professor Rubin’s sharp critique of the “questioning” pose reminds me of a line from Paul Ramsey, the great bioethicist:

We need to raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do. [from pages 122–123 of Ramsey’s 1970 book Fabricated Man]

How many of the signers of the Future of Life Institute open letter, I wonder, are men and women of frivolous conscience?

(Hat-tip to our colleague Brendan P. Foht, who brought the Ramsey passage to our attention in the office.)

Happy New Fear

I think the first news report I saw about the possibility of genetically engineering avian influenza to be more virulent was this one by the redoubtable Brandon Keim of Wired in 2010. Keim’s post did not really make clear why Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison had sought to develop a more virulent strain of the virus; it seems to suggest it was done to show it could be done, and that hence, if some final obstacles were overcome, some such pandemic would be “inevitable.” In any case, the research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and apparently included guidance on the particular human protein that would allow the virus to occupy the upper respiratory tract.The next story I saw was just this past November, when Kristen Philipkoski at Gizmodo posted that “Engineered Avian Flu Could Kill Half the World’s Humans.” Philipkoski presented the research of virologist Ron Fouchier, and noted the many red flags that might have gone up in the course of his efforts to increase the virulence of H5N1. But no:

He presented his work at the influenza conference in Malta this September. Now he wants to publish his study in a scientific journal, so those responsible for responding to bioterrorism can be prepared for the worst case scenario. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Not exactly. The research has set off alarms among colleagues who are urging Fouchier not to publish, for fear the recipe could wind up in the wrong hands. Some question whether the research should have been done in the first place. Fair point!

Fair point indeed.I waited for follow-on stories that would suggest that the danger here had been exaggerated, or that there was some extremely compelling reason that Philipkoski had missed for Fouchier to have undertaken his work. To date, I’ve seen nothing along those lines; do let me know in the comments what I might have missed. But the danger of the situation seems to be more or less confirmed by news reports this week that the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has, for the first time ever, requested that Nature and Science publish only redacted versions of Fouchier’s work, and of further work by Kawaoka. (Fouchier, to his credit, seems to have agreed to the request, if grudgingly and skeptically.)This time, Gizmodo’s Jamie Condliffe is up in arms. The request is

not cool…. I admit that this is a tough situation, but censoring journals is a dangerous precedent to set…. In many respects, this goes against the nature of science. Science works because people announce their findings for others to question — allowing us to confirm or refute them. That’s how science progresses, and censoring it like this kills the process. It’s also a hugely dangerous precedent to set. I hope the journals win out.

Condliffe’s knee-jerk reaction is only slightly less sophisticated than the pontificating by the journal editors about what “responsible influenza researchers” need to know. For while Fouchier may be willing to see his work redacted, it is not so clear Science is willing to publish it that way. Says Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, “Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.”“How science works” is of course important to the transhumanist project as well, and the libertarian impulse in the face of potentially grave danger that this particular incident reveals is not especially promising. Condliffe’s laissez-faire attitude toward science, and Alberts’s attempts to gain the upper hand over the NSABB, are not the brave defenses of the scientific enterprise that they intend them to be — for they are defending irresponsibility.Says Fouchier:

We have made a list of experts that we could share this with, and that list adds up to well over 100 organizations around the globe, and probably 1,000 experts. As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street. And so we have serious doubts whether this advice can be followed, strictly speaking.

Is he being cynical, or is this his honest assessment of the ability of his professional colleagues to act in the public interest? When developing atomic weapons, genuinely responsible researchers worked in the full knowledge that their path-breaking efforts would not be published at all, and that any sharing of knowledge would be on a strictly need-to-know basis among an extremely carefully restricted group. Would it not be the very definition of “responsible researcher” for any genetic engineer working in this newer field of weapons of mass destruction to accept, indeed actively seek, similarly serious restrictions?[Editor’s note: For an analysis of the likelihood of pathogens being bioengineered and weaponized by terrorists or rogue states, see the article “Could Terrorists Exploit Synthetic Biology?” from the Spring 2011 issue of The New Atlantis, by our late contributor Jonathan B. Tucker.]Image: The Birds (1963), © Universal Pictures

Setting the Record Straight

Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger with whom we
has a newish perch over on one of Discover magazine’s blogs. In a
post today
, Munkittrick tries to zing Peter Lawler, a contributing editor
to The New Atlantis
. For now I won’t comment on the substance of
Munkittrick’s post; I just want to focus on a prefatory paragraph. He mentions
that Professor Lawler served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, then offers
this smorgasbord of smears and demonstrable falsehoods:

For those of you unfamiliar with
Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind
halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin
abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and
thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I
kid you not
. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely
information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has
decided to employ.

Let’s look at these claims one by one.

Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”?
No. First of all, stem cell research never “halted” — in fact, it received
funding from the federal government for the first time during the Bush
administration, and it flourished in the United States during the Bush years.
Second, President Bush’s stem cell funding policy was
announced on
August 9, 2001, in the same speech in which the president
announced he was going to create the Council. The Council didn’t even have its
first meeting until January
, after the policy was already in place. (The Council did, however,
publish an
extremely useful report in 2004
explaining the state of stem cell research,
as well as a
white paper in 2005
analyzing some proposed means of obtaining pluripotent
stem cells that wouldn’t require the intentional destruction of human embryos.)

Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”?
No. The Council never addressed that subject. Mr. Munkittrick is either
mistaken or lying. (Go ahead and search the Council’s publications
and meeting
for yourself. In fact, the only mention in all the Council’s
work comes from neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, an avowed secular humanist who,
in contributing a
to one report, criticizes abstinence education in passing.)

Was the Council composed of “generally terrible
philosophers and thinkers”?
I am happy to concede Mr. Munkittrick’s intimate
familiarity with terrible philosophers and thinkers, not to mention terrible
thinking. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of the Council. Among
its members were medical doctors, accomplished scientists, philosophers,
theologians, and lawyers, with a wide range of views. It also solicited
testimony and contributions from many accomplished and esteemed figures, also
with a very wide range of views. The Council’s members were very accomplished
people who often disagreed with one another on the subjects the Council debated
— disagreements that were sometimes very illuminating. (As for Dr. Krauthammer,
Mr. Munkittrick may dislike his views on national security policy, but that has
little bearing on his service on the Council.)

Did the Council “rubber-stamp the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party”?
The latter part of this statement
is just inflammatory nonsense; the former part shows a plain ignorance of the
Council’s work. The Council was certainly not a rubberstamp, starting with its
first report, on cloning policy, in 2002
. It was such a diverse group of
scholars with such divided views that it couldn’t have been a mere rubberstamp
for any administration’s policies.

But policy wasn’t the Council’s chief concern anyway. As
Council member Gilbert Meilaender wrote
in an excellent essay for The New Atlantis
a year ago, “exploring
and examining competing goals” was the primary task of the Council. “Such
exploration is unlikely to result in a large number of policy recommendations,
but that is not its aim. The aim, rather, is to help the public and its elected
representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for
human life.” This is the assessment a reasonable person would have of the
Council’s work after reading any of its reports, all of which were
philosophically deep in their attempts to understand difficult bioethical issues,
but generally went lightly on the policy recommendations — so one gets the sense from this post that
Mr. Munkittrick is wholly unfamiliar with the reports issued by the body he so quickly

Finally, back to Lawler. A respected professor of political
philosophy, Lawler is the author of several wise books about modernity,
postmodernity, technology, and faith. I heartily recommend his latest book, Modern
and American Dignity
, as well as his previous book Stuck
with Virtue
; they both grapple with bioethical questions, and they both
reward careful reading.

Two Brief Notes on the Obama Bioethics Commission

President Obama recently announced the members of his new bioethics commission. We noted a few months ago that the new commission seems likely to focus on a few low-key policy questions, given the focus of its charter and the fact that both its chairman and vice chairman are busy university presidents. Nothing about its announced membership suggests otherwise. It is nice to see Daniel Sulmasy, an occasional New Atlantis contributor, among the appointees, and we look forward to seeing what this new commission decides to discuss and what approach it takes.

There are two minor points about the new commission that perhaps deserve comment. The first is that the new bioethics commission, like the bioethics council that President Bush appointed, has not drawn its members from the mainstream of professional bioethicists. Please notice the names that are absent from the commission — prominent mainstream bioethicists like George Annas, Tom Beauchamp, Dan Brock, Arthur Caplan, Alexander Capron, Alta Charo, James Childress, Ruth Faden, Hank Greely, Patricia King, Ruth Macklin, David Magnus, Glenn McGee, Jonathan Moreno, Thomas Murray, Erik Parens, Robert Veatch, LeRoy Walters, Susan Wolf, and Paul Root Wolpe.

Perhaps some of these bioethicists were invited onto the commission and declined. Perhaps some will participate in its work in other capacities, as staffers or consultants. But it is striking that, with the arguable exception of Anita Allen, the commission will have no members from the bioethics mainstream, and certainly none of its most prominent figures. There has already been some embittered complaining about this cold shoulder on one of the big bioethics blogs:

The most obvious question one must ask when reading the membership list of the commission is, “Where are the bioethicists?”

An excellent question. Professional bioethicists would do well ask themselves why two administrations have now declined to bring aboard the biggest names in mainstream bioethics.

One other minor point is worth mentioning because of what it reveals about politics and the press. Back in 2002, just before the first meeting of the Bush bioethics council, the Washington Post ran an article — not an opinion piece, mind you; a news article — that gratuitously drew a comparison between the Bush council and the Taliban. The article was called “Bush Unveils Bioethics Council”:

In November, researchers announced that they had made the first human embryo clones, giving immediacy to warnings by religious conservatives and others that science is no longer serving the nation’s moral will. At the same time, the United States was fighting a war to free a faraway nation from the grip of religious conservatives who were denounced for imposing their moral code on others.

In the pages of one of the nation’s leading newspapers, this is an indefensible smear — but it would even be an embarrassing analogy if it came from a partisan press-release office. As it happens, the reporter who wrote that article, Rick Weiss, is now working in just such a capacity. Weiss left journalism to join the liberal Center for American Progress and then the Obama administration. Now his name appears atop a White House press release/blog post called “President Announces Choices for New Bioethics Commission.” So eight years ago he was sliming the Bush administration’s bioethics council from within the world of journalism, and today he helps announce the Obama administration’s bioethics commission from within that administration. Draw your own conclusions.

The New Bioethics Commission

Last week, the White House announced the formation of a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. It will have a chairman and vice chairman — and at least at first, both will be university administrators: Amy Gutmann, the president of U Penn, and James W. Wagner, the president of Emory.

The executive order formally creating the commission — what you might think of as the charter explaining the commission’s purpose and powers — was published today. It emphasizes policy-relevance: the commission is tasked with “recommend[ing] legal, regulatory, or policy actions” related to bioethics. This stands in contrast to its immediate predecessor, the President’s Council on Bioethics, the charter for which emphasized exploring and discussing over recommending. Since the former council’s website ( has been taken down, we are pleased to announce that we have archived all of its publications here on the New Atlantis site. (The Council’s impressive website, which included transcripts of all its public meetings, will hopefully be restored somewhere online in its entirety soon; in the meantime, interested parties will have to make do with the incomplete record in the Internet Archive.)

The former council’s report that is most relevant to this blog is Beyond Therapy, a 2003 consideration of human enhancement. Perhaps most striking about that report is its modus operandi: instead of beginning with an analysis of novel and controversial enhancement technologies, the council chose to begin by examining human functions and activities that have been targeted for enhancement. “By structuring the inquiry around the desires and goals of human beings, we adopt the perspective of human experience and human aspiration, rather than the perspective of technique and power. By beginning with long-standing and worthy human desires, we avoid premature adverse judgment on using biotechnologies to help satisfy them.” Beyond Therapy is a powerful document, and it rewards careful attention. (We published a symposium of essays in response to the book.)

We will have more to say about the former council in the months ahead. But for now, one final amusing observation about the new commission: If you look closely at the executive order creating it, you will see that among the issues it is invited to discuss is “the application of neuro- and robotic sciences.” That’s right — President Obama’s new bioethics commission has been explicitly invited to take a look at robotics. Just the latest indication that the administration is worried about the looming robot threat.