The study of bioethics is rich and varied, always growing in diversity as emerging technologies advance. Bioethical issues have their root in decision-making about research methodology, where academics struggled to define propriety in humans’ exploitation of the natural world – plants and animals – to further science for their own benefits. Bioethics maintains this same ethos today, centered on the link between human interests in and relationship to the sciences, notably including biology and medicine. The inquiries of bioethics extend to a huge swath of topics in within health and human sciences, reflecting the deep reach technological innovations have into everyone’s lives.
First, a word on the relationship between science and morality. In Science can answer moral questions, Sam Harris suggests that the values humans rely upon to define their ethical obligations and moral choices can be seen as facts, which are the foundation of science:
Harris is a neuroscientist and philosopher who seeks to define the way that ideas about human life are shaped by the physical world in which people live. People often presume that science cannot answer the existential questions humans consider most compelling, like – what is the meaning or purpose of life? This modern world is continually impacted by technological change, but does science just provoke moral issues, or can it indeed be a force for addressing or solving them? Science is fact-driven and so too can be people’s practical assessments about right and wrong in real life. Therefore science can and should be an authority in the domain of objective fact rather, than only basing these considerations solely on non-concrete intuitions or opinions.
Building upon this presumption that science and ethics do indeed have a powerful mutual dependency, bioethics asks many moral and existential questions germane to this relationship. Animal rights, gene therapy, patient care, bio-engineering, and research methodology are just a few examples of areas where bioethical issues and debates commonly arise. The below TED/TEDx talks are a sampling of how scientists, technologists, and academics confront these challenges in their work and expect that the relationship that science and technology have with law and philosophy will continue to impact human life and society.
- It’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with animals (Lesli Bisgould) – Human relationships with animals are more morally and legally complicated than many people might realize. Living with companion animals is very common and most people would say that they have compassion for animals and feel they should be treated with respect and dignity. However, humans draw unconscious lines between animals they feel are household pets, such as cats or dogs; captive animals they may think exist for educational or entertainment purposes, like whales and dolphins; livestock animals that are part of the industrial food manufacturing supply chain, like cows and chickens; and wild animals that are hunted or poached, like elephants and lions. Why do we make these distinctions and do they have some objective basis in a moral universe? What is the responsibility and response of the law?
- Gene Therapy – The time is now (Nick Leschly) – Gene therapy could enable the repair of diseased or damaged cells. With applications from this technology, doctors could cure illnesses and fix injuries for good instead of requiring a lifetime of preventive and prescriptive treatment. This is an advancement that could change medicine forever. However, major funding has historically been hard to attract for research and development in gene therapy because of ethical and religious uncertainties, not to mention the resistance of some individuals and institutions within the traditional medicine establishment. Moral fear, some concrete and others more esoteric, about the dark side of where this technology could take society, even if scientists enter with the best intentions to control against that, have been a financial and ideological barrier to progress.
- Transparency, Compassion, and Truth in Medical Errors (Leilani Schweitzer) – The Alexander Pope proverb goes “To err is human, to forgive, divine” – but what about when the human error results in the death of a loved one? How does one forgive when the mistake is that of a professional – such as a doctor? The legal tort system and medical malpractice insurance certainly do not inspire a reaction of kindness from the survivors. However, perhaps truth is the essential element in handling a tragic event such as a medical mistake that leads to catastrophic injury or death. Truth in medicine is important when the mistake occurs, in the form of transparency, accountability, and honest communication. Truth is also important in recovery by the survivors after the mistakes – remedial care, openness, and radical candor that can lead to emotional healing and inspire advocacy. Admitting and facing mistakes is a powerful act of integrity that can never be supplanted by the legal and administrative system in defining patient care responsibilities.
- It’s time to question bio-engineering (Paul Root Wolpe) – As this blog often espouses, the best time to address moral or integrity questions and consider implementing a code of ethics that will be sustainable for the future, is universal: as soon as possible. There’s no time too soon to think about the foundations of integrity in any area of society, especially when it comes to science and developing technology. In the field of bio-engineering, technology has already advanced quite far to do things like selective or hybrid breeding of animals, modification of food products, and the creation and manipulation of artificial cells. Regulation has become controversial as an obstacle to advancement. The presumption goes that making rules or laws that cover the scope of people’s work in a scientific area will stifle their innovation. This does not have to be true if a moral code is built into the knowledge acquisition process from the beginning. Progress and ethics are not naturally at odds and do not have to be positioned as antagonistic to each other in pursuit of scientific discovery, but to let either take dominance over the other is short-sighted and dangerous.
- Trust in research – the ethics of knowledge production (Garry Gray) – The work of research scientists weighs heavily on consumer and public safety. Most of the goods people use on an everyday basis have been the product of a prolonged research and development process, which laypeople assume has been conducted with accuracy as the principle interest and free of biases. However, this is far from true in practice. Corporate funding and institutional agendas all have great influence on scientific research. People are well aware of the possible danger of these influences, which are nevertheless necessary for work to be done, but the deeper problem is that the researchers themselves may believe they are able to naturally maintain independence as a function of their expertise. In reality, no conflict of interest risk management mechanism can be effective if it only exists within a person’s head. Sensitively and sensibly managing these conflicts and the biases they create is very important work that must be responsively and proactively done to support research scientists in their endeavors.
Check back in the coming weeks for further posts on bioethics, including a look at current trends in corporate compliance issues arising from bioethical debates in the scientific research and medical fields, further discussion of bioethics as it relates to artificial intelligence, and insights on the larger interrelationship between technology and ethics of knowledge acquisition, engineering, and design.