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Paul Wolpe

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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.

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  • Apr 2 2011: My background: Engineering and science. Science and technology always promise to deliver better qualify of life, but often fail and, worse, are often used for nefarious purposes never intended by the inventor or scientist. The failure is often not in the technology, but in the darkness of the human heart. The people in these threads extol the altruistic possibilities of bioengineering...we are creatures driven by hope. We hope for the best, even when warning signs of the worst lay right in front of us.

    We fail to see what history has written about the fruit of human nature: Good and evil are within us all, with a bent toward the latter. The atrocities of Auschwitz started as ideas in the universities and scientific communities of Nazi Germany - the desire for the "master race", free from handicaps and physical imperfection; free from the "undesirables" (i.e., most of us). Those ideas ended in the massacre of 20 million people.

    If the technology exists to recreate man in someone else's "image", to take away his autonomy using bionic implants, as was done with these other creatures, do you naively believe that power and control will go unused? You see the control experiments being done by DARPA. The natural conclusion of that work is the "perfect soldier", mere avatars under someone else's control. Wake up, people!!

    Everyone talks about "ethics". In the absence of an absolute, transcendent being, who defines ethics and morality? Do we merely count noses in a vote? Does might make right? Or, as is usually the case, does it boil down to the almighty dollar, euro or yen and who gets richer?

    We already kill human babies by the millions (50+ million since 1973 in the U.S.) mostly because of economic and life style reasons. (Pro-abortionists bring up rape and incest, but those are less than 2-3%.)

    We have forgotten God, the source of ethics, the source of morality, justice and truth. We have sown the wind and are about to reap the whirlwind. God help us all!
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      Apr 2 2011: Masochists are also driven by hope. Some can stay in abusive relationships hoping that they will turn out well for them, some sit around passively hoping for the best and burying themselves in denial. Then there are others who manage to get out of that, who see the "danger signs" and attempt to be agents and do something about it. So hope is not even valuable to the human condition in my opinion, agency is. Here are some things that can be attributed to agency.

      Scientific progress, our population has only been growing and so has our quality of life. We have ups and downs but you take away what science has given us and your life span would probably be about 30 years. The existence of democratic governments, which existed prior to Christianity. Ethics and the idea of a virtuous life which also existed prior to Christianity and were later adopted by many Christian thinkers. Utaltiarian and Kantian ethics are also major themes of discussion when it comes to modern day justice. Christian morals are just one segment of the ethical pie.

      Babies and many others die world wide because the prevalent economic system we have adopted is capitalism, which allows for such things to happen. The problem is not that many capitalists have abandoned God, if you follow American politics you would notice that many of them claim that they are devoted followers.

      Finally Nazism did not emerge in the universities. Most intellectuals were actually democratic socialists which Hitler despised. Most philosophies were framed to support the propaganda of the Nazi regime after Nazism rose to power. Nietzsche's idea of the superman for instance. But if you even read a grain of Nietzsche you would realize it's absurd that to think he would support a dictatorial regime. Heidegger supported Hitler but then again you put a gun to my head and I'll support anyone.
    • Apr 13 2011: It seems interesting that you have a background in science yet you seem so religious. Somebody who is science has to believe in it, when you see it as an evil we have inflicted and failed at because of the "darkness of our hearts". You also talk about the Holocaust, but why would God (if there is one) let something so evil happen? There is no answer to my question. Ethics is always essential in science since we need to make sure the science is being used for good. I don't think we need to look towards God for our source of ethics, but rather our own reasoning and science.
    • Apr 14 2011: Human nature is balance. It is controlling our baser evils, while retaining our humanity in the face of emotionless reason. Scientific progress can and has caused numerous amounts of suffering and devastation but on the same token it has brought hope to the hopeless and alleviated human suffering. Do these new technologies have the potential for "evil"? Yes, but they may also end the sufferings of many, bring untold prosperity, and unlock even greater progress. I understand your concerns, human's beings are fickle creatures, with qualities both to be admired and despised. However, is it not the benevolent being you look to that believed in the redemption of our race, sending it's only son to die for our sins, and if not that did said omnipresent power not also grant us the freedom of choice when it so easily could have made us in a manner similar to the robotic organism we are now creating? No matter what you believe, we cannot allow fear of possible disaster keep us from progressing. If things get out of hand we as species will have to face the consequences. Can we truly say the humanity would have been better off stuck in Plato's cave, do you really believe that Prometheus made a mistake when he stole fire from the gods? Knowledge is a heavy burden but it is one we must bear, we must progress for it is our nature, but that is not say we cannot do so ethically. When fear is the dominant factor in ones decision, regret will soon follow.

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