Human Exceptionalism

Good Conference in Albany

I have to hand it to Glenn McGee: He organized an excellent bioethics conference. The deck was definitely not stacked and people with sharp and deeply felt differences were able to meet and debate without undue rancor or nastiness. I missed the first day but apparently Not Dead Yet sprang a surprise demonstration on the conference, chanting, “Nothing about us without us,” and were then allowed to speak. (McGee told me he had invited a representative to present. I haven’t spoken with any NDYers to get their side of the matter.)

The panel in which I presented, “How has Politics Affected How We Do Bioethics,” was certainly balanced. Eric Cohen and I were on one side, with Art Caplan and Jonathan Moreno on the other. The presentations of Caplan, Moreno, and Cohen were solid and articulate. As a man of a certain age who remembers my childhood terror of polio, I was very interested to learn that Caplan’s experience as a young polio patient led to his interest in bioethics. I also learned from Caplan that Paul Ramsey and Joseph Fletcher became so estranged over their twenty-year intellectual struggle that they refused to share a stage together when they received a prestigious bioethics award.

Space does not permit a fair recitation of what the other panelists had to say. I assume that there will be some kind of record published, as we were videotaped. But for those who are interested, here is a very condensed summary of my presentation:

The conference is about bioethics and politics. “But,” I said, “bioethics is politics.” I then differentiated between what I called “micro bioethics,” that is the work of people in hospital corridors and at bedsides trying to help patients, families, and medical professionals work through difficult dilemmas, and “macro bioethics,” which tries to impact public policy, culture, and the methods by which micro bioethics is conducted.

I suggested that (macro) bioethics is not a discourse and not a matter of bioethicists being “neutral arbiters” of complex moral dilemmas. Nor, is it a profession, as there is no specific training required to become a bioethicist, no state licensing, no professional discipline, etc. Rather, mainstream bioethics is a political and social movement, and like all such movements, seeks to implement policy based on a distinct ideology.

I pointed out that generally, if I know someone is a mainstream bioethicist, I can predict where they will come down on the important bioethical issues of the day (which I listed, ranging from abortion, to assisted suicide, to therapeutic cloning, etc.). These are highly contentious political issues, and, not surprisingly, have generated a political response from the so-called “conservative” bioethicists who oppose the mainstream view.

The cause of the divide is fundamental: Mainstream bioethicists reject the intrinsic value of human life and instead have embraced personhood theory. Those of us perceived to be in the other camp, accept the intrinsic value of human life. This divide is too wide for the two sides to reach accommodation. Thus, we will always be in conflict.

But, this is good. These conflicts are how democracies decide important issues. Moreover, we will not decide how it all turns out. The people will through our democratic institutions. Thus those of us in the fray owe it to society to vigorously and energetically debate these matters. But how we do that is important. The people have a right to make informed decisions based on accurate information.

I also argued that coalitions of strange political bedfellows could be very powerful and suggested that we be on the lookout for areas where we can agree. One potential issue in which we might come together is to stimulate world protest over the apparent killing of Falun Gong members by China and the sale of their organs. A new Canadian study (which I have yet to read) seems to provide solid evidence that this is happening. If the study is credible, the collective voices of both sides of the great bioethics divide could spark an important corrective.

In summary: I was treated courteously and respectfully and enjoyed the give and take very much. I am very glad I participated.