Mike Eisen on scientists as moral agents

Arguing in support of President Obama’s stem cell research policy, genomics guru (and Open Access maven) Michael Eisen points out that researchers are moral entities, not appliances:

Hey Mr. Bioethicist, Scientists are Not Amoral

Yuval Levin, former Executive Director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, has an op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Post arguing that Obama’s new stem cell policy is dangerous. Levin does not argue that stem cell research is bad. Rather he is upset that Obama did not dictate which uses of stem cells are appropriate, but rather asked the National Institutes of Health to draft a policy on which uses of stem cells are appropriate:

It [Obama’s policy] argues not for an ethical judgment regarding the moral worth of human embryos but, rather, that no ethical judgment is called for: that it is all a matter of science. This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Lost in this superficially unobjectionable – if banal – assertion of the complexity of ethical issues involving science is Levin’s (and many other bioethicists) credo: that the moral complexity of scientific issues means that scientists should not make decisions about them.

Well said: Scientists are capable of evaluating the morally complex landscape in which we work, and we have our own capacity for moral judgment. We don’t need graduate-school dropouts bioethicists to provide us with a surrogate conscience. Speaking more broadly: morality in science can and should be “bottom-up” — driven by the values of those individuals doing the work, and in conversation with other stakeholders — rather than “top-down”. Look where “top-down” morality got us during the Bush years.

The flip side? We’re morally on the hook for the consequences of our actions. I hope that the biologists of the 21st century are more willing to accept than than the nuclear scientists of the 20th century were.


One comment

  1. This is really a first amendment issue. The government cannot (or should not) legislate morality, but people do. And last time I checked, most of us science geeks are people, too.

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