Citation(2005) 17 SAcLJ 17
Date01 December 2005
Published date01 December 2005

Part 3: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil1

Some aspects of ethical concerns in bioscience are not new. Issues concerning abortion and the termination of non-viable life have been debated for along time. Some issues are still relatively fresh. The ethics and morals concerning the use of genetic information, the cloning of human beings, and the limits of genetic experimentation are some such areas. This part of the essay is an invitation to the reader to address the old as well as the new issues in the context of the key determinant factors such as the notion of the sanctity of life.

Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and yet another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.2

I. Introduction

1 In Part 2 of this essay I examined questions concerning the basis of morality.3 In this part I shall explore some specific moral issues which bioscience has thrust into the forefront of intellectual activity. The territory of bioscience, however, is vast, and specific moral questions in this field too numerous to be fully covered in a single essay. Hence, I shall only take aim at some fundamental issues and consider the central themes and the more fascinating aspects of a few choice areas. The problems that science brings in the wake of its relentless and amazing progress raises difficult questions, and we cannot afford to be caught flat-footed because if we were, we might be compelled to make decisions without adequate preparation, or sufficient reflection. We constantly ponder whether bioscience is beneficent (and, therefore, ought to continue its incredible advance), or dangerous (and, therefore, ought to be curbed), or whether there can be a compromise between the two

positions. This intellectual challenge easily draws two conventional responses. The first is flight. We might think the task too awesome, the issues too frightening for contemplation, and decisions too difficult, and that the best way to deal with these issues is to ignore them. The second is to open our minds and deliberate on them rationally, and impartially. The first alternative is hardly practical. All of us have many occasions in which to make decisions that affect either our life, if not someone else’s, be it a decision to terminate life support, agreeing to the use of stem cells in curing an otherwise debilitating or terminal illness, or the use of genetic engineering to enhance or imbue certain desired characteristics in a foetus.4 The second route seems to be the obvious choice. But that will likely take us to an intersection where religion, science and philosophy might not just meet, but clash violently against each other. We shall have to be prepared to ponder the imponderable, think the unthinkable, and open our minds to fully absorb the magnificent expansion of knowledge in the new science. If there is purpose in this universe, and in life, then the search for moral justification should aim at disproving the (Kantian) thesis that nothing straight can be formed from the crooked timber of humanity. The challenge of science is compelling because science is open, honest, precise, and accurate. We cannot send astronauts into space unless we are absolutely certain that the spacecraft can bring the astronauts there, keep them alive, and bring them back safely. There is no room for idle claims or calculations that are “roughly” right. However we might ultimately judge science, we ought, at least, be grateful for the fundamental lesson that it teaches us — that truth must be pursued not only passionately and relentlessly, but also patiently and objectively; and the corollary standard, that nothing is to be accepted that cannot stand to scrutiny and strict proof. That standard requires a resolute discipline that must be harnessed into service of any intellectual adventure.

2 Science is sometimes perceived as something akin to the occult, just by virtue of its incredible achievements, and thus feared as such. It is a fear of the ignorant in ancient days. That sort of fear was thought to be unfounded in modern day, but each time a great leap in scientific discovery is made, that old fear is rekindled. But now, suspicion and apprehension of biotechnology and its potential is pervasive even among the scientific community because the new achievements in science are too great and their implications and potential too vast. It is important, however, to identify what these fears are specifically, so that we can

address the ethical issues appropriately. Some of the fears are variants of the old fear of the unknown, uncharted territory that science nudges us towards. Even scientists can be nervous about the unknown. We can all harbour the hope that not many ethical issues will remain unresolved; and that the ghostly, dark voids of the unknown will disappear when the light of knowledge breaks through; when we become more acquainted with, and begin to understand, that hitherto dark territory. But there are scientists who are frightened by what science can do to humanity. They worry about seemingly ineluctable ethical problems carried on the wings of scientific progress. British genetic scientist Mae-Wan Ho, for example, leads the charge against the commercialisation of biotechnology for the evil that she fears is the “unholy alliance of bad science and big business”.5 In Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare, she stated that:6

The point, however, is not that science is bad (a charge that is too often made by the Green movement and by journalists in the popular media) but that there can be bad science, which ill serves humanity. Science can often be wrong. The history of science can just as well be written to show the mistakes it has made as the series of triumphs with which it is usually credited. [emphasis in original]

It seems almost like the nature of the universe itself, constantly expanding and collapsing in turn. So as we yearn and strive eagerly to understand what all that means, we look inwards, in this small region, a tiny outpost, a speck within a speck, to find, and perhaps establish, morality in the realm of a seemingly amoral science.

3 Morality and ethics have been the traditional residents in the domains of philosophy and religion, but science has increasingly trespassed into those territories and threatens to test their validity and applicability within its context, and even on its terms. In the process, great upheavals in thought are inevitable. If Darwin was right, Genesis was wrong. If Copernicus was right, the book of Joshua was wrong.7 This essay is not intended to prove or disprove any particular version, but to point to the direct areas of conflict, so that the basis upon which ethical decisions are made are clearly established. In this regard, ethical rules in respect of the research must not be confused with ethical rules for the

researcher, and mythos must also be separated from logos— myth from fact. Beyond the science-religion confrontation, there may also be internecine quarrels. If the god of religion Alpha says it is wrong to kill, but the god of religion Beta says that it is not, one of them cannot be right. Furthermore, it is also conceivable that one might be right for the wrong reasons.8 This essay is a secular paper and will focus on reason and logos for the foundational basis of moral rules in the context of bioscience. However, it will be necessary to emphasise the diverse approaches and intractable differences between science, religion, and philosophy to minimise confusion in analysis or any tendency towards compromises for courtesy’s sake. The focus of this essay is on the secular principles of morality that apply, or are otherwise called in question in the context of bioscience.

4 In this part of the essay I hope to attract attention to the broad categories of interconnecting factors that require consideration, and also to identify matters that have interwoven or have a tendency to weave themselves into such factors, thereby creating digression, misunderstanding, and confusion where relevancy and coherence are crucially important. Some of the issues and arguments can be provocative, but the main aim of this essay is to explain the various viewpoints so that persons of diverse opinions can try and understand other, opposing views; appreciate the complexities involved; and perhaps, understand their own views more clearly.9 The old issues concerning the ethics of prolonging life and the termination of life at its edges (abortion and euthanasia), have been eclipsed in some ways by contemporary questions relating to the creation of life and the modification of the human being. However, many fundamental arguments so relevant to the old issues are still relevant and require further evaluation. We cannot talk about cloning human beings, for example, and yet ignore questions concerning the sanctity of life.

5 We need also to find a cogent relation between a scientific disadvantage (or downside) and a moral wrong. Cloning, for example, might result in a loss of genetic diversity. That might be a scientific disadvantage, but how, if at all, would that be a moral wrong? One argument is that we have a moral duty to prevent any reduction of the

gene pool or any limitation of the natural expansion of ethnic diversity because the loss of genetic diversity is deleterious to the human race in the long term, and here we might be talking about cosmic life spans. In this regard, the span of a few thousand years is short-term, when we consider that human evolution from the ape to the Neanderthal to the homo sapien took millions of years.10

II. What is life?

6 Bioscience, sometimes loosely, though not accurately, used as a synonym for Life Science, unlike other sciences, engages life directly. We might not, for instance, be concerned with the wherewithal by which a rocket...

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