TED Conversations

Paul Wolpe

This conversation is closed.

Misunderstanding Ethics and the purpose of this talk

It is interesting to read the comments this talk has elicited. People project onto the talk their own fears or beliefs. The talk has one purpose, and I suppose it has achieved that: it is to get people debating and thinking about the ethics of biotechnology. That is why, nowhere in the talk, do I give my own opinion as to correct answers; I want the viewer to ask themselves the questions.
On the other hand, some of the claims in the comments are pretty surprising. I am involved in quite a few biotechnological projects, so the idea that I am anti-technology or a Luddite borders on the absurd. When Craig Venter first decided to create his minimal genome, he hired my Center at Penn to examine the ethical issues involved, and the two articles were published side by side in Science. So is Craig Venter a Luddite because he was concerned about the ethics of biotechnology?
Science and ethics must go hand in hand. When they don't, science has done unconscionable things. All good scientists understand this, which is why top scientists generally support bioethics, and believe in the importance of incorporating ethical reflection into science and science education. The purpose of bioethics is not to stop science, but to make sure that it is both performed ethically (the history of human subject experimentation is scandalous) and that society, and scientists, carefully consider the best use of scientific funds and the direction of scientific inquiry.
As far as what is done in one's private lab, that too must be constrained by ethical standards. Just because a lab is private does not mean we should allow it to manufacture a virulent virus, do cruel experiments on animals, or release an engineered organism into the ecosystem. Science is part of society, and has no special purchase from which to excuse itself from the ethical reflection or standards that the rest of society is subject to.

Share:

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Mar 27 2011: I think, after reading all of your thoughtful comments, that the thread may be sort-of jumping the gun; the discussion seems to be about what is or is not ethical, as if ethics is the discipline of providing near-perfect answers to our questions (or its inability to do so).
    However, the subject of the talk (and thank you for it Paul, excellent stuff!) is to question, specifically bioengineering - ethics being a method of designing the questions. So to investigate the concept of ethics (as I believe is Paul's purpose of this discussion, given its title), rather than trying to answer the ethical dilemmas (such as Sabin's), we should look at how those dilemmas were designed, or formulated, and why.
    I believe that ethics is the process of finding out which questions need to be asked with regards to whichever topic is chosen - as such, it resembles the scientific process, which also is trying to formulate a question to which we want or need an answer, precisely *because* the answer is beyond our grasp to begin with.
    (We should remember that a basic tenet of science is falsifiability, by the way)

    The difference is that science is (or should be) a tool for the acquisition of knowledge, and ethics is (or should be) a tool for seeking wisdom - it should be obvious that I agree with Daniel in his definition of the twain.

    By this token, ethics should be an evolving process, again just like science, and the questions we design should be posed in the search for a greater wisdom than whatever such we may posess at present. It is, in my opinion, a clear misunderstanding of ethics to think of it as a simple exchange of opinion, or that any ethical question that has us scrambling for an answer that eludes us somehow indicates that ethics "don't work" or are not important - the lesson of such questions depend entirely on how they were designed.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.