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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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  • Mar 26 2011: Of course we argue about ethics, and there are disagreements. We also argue about science, and there are disagreements, but no one suggests that science is arbitrary. When I suggested that ethics does not allow us to do an unethical experiment to save lives, I was reflecting the ethical consensus we have arrived at as an ethical community.
    Ethics is, in my view, a conversation that evolves over time. So we have generally reached a consensus - internationally, by the way - that there are certain ethical principles that should guide human subjects experimentation. That does not mean noone disagrees, or some nations don't, but it is remarkable that in virtually all developed, scientific nations, we have a set of ethical standards for how we can experiment on human beings.
    All societies condemn murder. Even Nazi Germany had laws against murder (ironically). Different societies have different standards of what murder is, and some are, in the view of most of the rest of the world, very misguided. But note: even those countries who violate our standards of murder CLAIM they don't. That is, by claiming that the person they framed actually committed murder, or convicting someone of a crime they did not do, or denying that the government did not assassinate that political opponent, they are implicitly ACCEPTING the general ethical standards of the world (or else they would just say "Yes, we assassinated him, and we believe that was the ethical thing to do.").
    Ethics evolves over time, and we as a society, and as a world community, reach ethical consensus. As the world has gotten smaller, and communications faster and more ubiquitous, the global conversation about ethics has allowed more of a world consensus than was possible in the past. So the interesting thing about ethics today is that it is more universal than any time in history.
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      Mar 26 2011: Have we really arrived at that consensus as an ethical community? I somehow cannot remember when and how. Of course we all agree that killing others is generally not ok, but even here you have enough disagreements when it comes to special cases.

      Take this great question on decision making that I discovered some time ago:
      A group of children were playing near two railway tracks, one still in use while the other disused. Only one child played on the disused track, the rest on the operational track. The train is coming, and you are just beside the track interchange. You can make the train change its course to the disused track and save most of the kids. However, that would also mean the lone child playing by the disused track would be sacrificed. Or would you rather let the train go its way?

      So, do you sacrifice the "wiser" kid playing on the disused track to save the others or the others instead for playing on an operational track? Or did they even know which is operational and which is not?
      Not applied ethics like bioethics here, but still a quick thought experiment to show we are nowhere near a consensus.

      And in my opinion the same applies to bioengineering. I didn't see it linked here so far, so I'll mention Gregory Stock's talk "to upgrade is human" (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/gregory_stock_to_upgrade_is_human.html).
      I think he is totally right when he assumes that it is normal for us to want to upgrade and change, and that we should not kid ourselves into thinking that we can truly control this development, if a ban is instored in a certain place, it will be done elsewhere.
      I'm afraid consensus will - if we ever happen to reach it - come by learning the hard way, and not short-term.
      • Mar 26 2011: Those are the kinds of ethical dilemmas that people like me use all the time in class. But note: the problem there is that there are TWO ACCEPTED ethical principles in conflict, and the question is how you balance them; no one would argue that it is not an ethical dilemma at all, because it is OK to kill people. The fact that we argue over ethical specifics does not mean that there is no consensus over ethics, any more than arguing over whether the 1972 Dolphins or the 1962 Packers were the greatest Football team ever means that we have no consensus over what makes a great football team.
        The vast majority of ethical principles we all agree upon. The vast majority of cases we all agree upon. That we can construct cases where there is disagreement is not remarkable. It is what ethics is all about.
        • Apr 17 2011: I agree that we DO as a country have a standard for what is ethical and what is not. It is known as the Constitution. However, just because we have a set standard does not mean that standard encompasses all cases. The Supreme Court works daily to establish an ethical standard for topics which the Framers could not have ever foreseen. However, even they cannot keep up with the vast array of technological innovations in the past few decades. Bioethics at this point discusses these issues, but even then a consensus is not always reached. In fact, even in ethics for topics not science-related, it is hard to reach a general consensus. Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California, passed, receiving 52% of the vote. That is barely a majority, and recent trends are showing that this number will decline in the near future, bringing it even closer to a 50-50 split. That is in absolutely no way a general consensus.

          But back to the biology. I agree with the introductory paragraphs stating that science and ethics should go hand-in-hand. We do have a consensus on some issues, and the ethics of those issues should always be followed. However, for some issues, such as stem-cell research, there is still enough of a polarization between the two sides that the only way to achieve progress in the field is to go against what a significant portion of the population would say is unethical. If other ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research arise, as there often is, then society's view on the topic will change.

          Science relies on ethics to ensure the research receives enough public support. However, there are many cases where a consensus cannot be reached, and scientists and researchers in those cases will have to go with their instinct in order to make the best decision for them. There is some consensus, and it is greatly appreciated, but there are plenty of areas where no consensus can be reached, and those areas find their way into bioethics classrooms.
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      Mar 26 2011: I think science and ethics are a bit different in nature. In science you come to conclusions through observations and measurements of natural phenomena. So you are dealing with something tangible.
      In ethics, we are talking about conventions we might or might not agree upon, but which have no objective foundation. What is the source of our ethical principles ? Just because the majority of people agrees to an ethical principle, doesn't mean that it is right (there was a time when the majority of people believed the earth was flat and as we know, they were wrong).
      If there wouldn't be any religion and no legal system, how would our ethics look like ?
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        Mar 27 2011: I would hope that care and respect would prevail........
        Also the basis of my ethics or BELIEF SYSTEM is the Golden Rule. Wouldn't all agree to that ?
      • Apr 15 2011: I believe Harald makes a valid point about the difference between science and ethics. As you stated, science has corrected many misconceptions, but ethics isn’t quite as simple. It’s impossible to create a enduring standard for ethics. Where science can establish a correct and incorrect answer, ethics relies on creating an acceptable belief. It is constantly changing as it is relative to our own beliefs and morality.

        You mention two foundations for our ethics: religion and a legal system. Really it comes down to religion, as a debate over creating laws is often an ethical debate with a religious foundation. For this reason, acts such as cloning are deemed illegal due to their “unethical” nature. The issue with religion as a foundation for ethics is that it is largely unchanging, while ethics constantly changes. Therefore what is changing is our interpretation of religion, which in effect alters our ethical beliefs. This can be very dangerous as religion can then be adapted to justify what we would see as unethical practices (such as slavery).

        Scientific research and experimentation such as this then challenges our ethical boundaries and debate cannot be settled until enough people hold a particular belief long enough for it to be largely considered “right”. It is not necessarily an imposed belief, but one that develops in enough people over a large period of time that creates an ethical standard.
      • Apr 15 2011: To the original poster: though it is a universally held principle that science and ethics are two vastly different fields, one of their points of intersection is at the point when new technology comes into existence in any field. An instance of this is the creation of the Gatling gun and several new weapons in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s as a way to end war by making casualties few and wars short unprecedentedly creating some of the bloodiest and longest wars that we have had in history. I respect your opinion humbly, but I disagree with it completely.

        To Helen: I think that the Golden Rule is a moronic concept to follow involving morality. One of the major problems with it is not everyone has a positive morality. Would the golden rule apply to someone who is a masochist?

        I also agree with Bryan in his belief that religion and most metaphysical beliefs can be twisted and warped to an individual’s whim. However, I would like to add that I believe that, over time (except in the case of Islam and most strains of Fundamentalism), most of the major religions and religious denominations that exist have become increasingly tolerant since the world has become increasingly tolerant as a necessity towards altruism. Also, I believe that “religion” is merely a strand of philosophy that has extraneous metaphysical beliefs attached to it in order to create an argument from authority as well.

        I apologize for not responding to Johnson Tao. I would have if I understood your point. I also apologize for myself and my fellow students for resurrecting a dead thread. We are doing this for a bioethics class as an assignment, and are studying the different uses of stem cells. I am not sure if my teacher will allow me to do this, but I would gladly post the website where we usually post our opinions about various ethical issues.
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          Apr 15 2011: Hi Loren, I'm not familiar with the history of the Gatling gun and what led to its invention. However, you say that it was created with the intent to reduce causalities as well as the time of a given conflict. So, if that was the real intent (and not just an excuse) then, from an ethical point of view it was the right decision. That it turned out differently, is a different story.
          You said you disagree with me. On what exactly do you disagree and why ?
      • Apr 18 2011: Of course I agree with Harald when he says that there is a difference between science and ethics. That much is obvious and there is a very evident difference between the two topics. However, I believe it to be nothing short of imperative for the two topics of interest to be intertwined when either is being considered. Science and its progression is independent of ethics, however, its implementation is a different story and should always be based upon ethics and the morality of what is being performed. Without ethics being taken into account when science and its findings are put into practice, we could very easily become barbarians performing horrendous actions without any regard for the ethical price. I think we can all agree that this would be a dangerous realm to step into, that being a world were science is not limited by morality. While I do not believe that one organization (i.e. the Catholic Church) should limit everyone’s ability or access to a certain medical treatment, for instance, the advancement of the research of stem cells, I do believe that people should always question the implementation of these advancements and the ethical dilemmas behind them. I am a member of a Bioethics class, and I have come to realize that without careful consideration of the principles of a our actions, especially in regards to science, we become like cavemen with large clubs, swinging them about without any reflection upon what the consequences of our actions may be. Subsequently, I believe that science and questions of ethics should always be integrated.
      • Apr 18 2011: I agree with Harold that science and ethics cannot be wholly reconciled. They are not entirely opposed, but rather occupy differing ends of the same spectrum. In that sense, the ground that each concept concerns can be shared, and this common ground is what bioethicists focus on.

        Indeed, a great deal of our modern understanding of ethics stems from modern religions. However, proper morals and ethics can stem from secular sources all the same, which demands an integral balance be found when allowing religion to become involved in science, particularly when imposing limits on the science we pursue. Considering this, I would argue that the field of biotechnology, a lack of religious ethics is not anything to fear. Basic human decency dictates the Golden Rule as much as Buddha or the Bible, so "slippery slopes" regarding a contested topic such as euthanasia becoming forced eugenics is unlikely. Atrocities committed by the likes of Nazi Germany were enacted by average people with religion in their hearts. Ethics should not be a catch all method of shoehorning religion into science, but deciding in what ways applying that science can benefit humanity the most.
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      Mar 27 2011: I take the debate hereby between Paul Wolpe and Sabin Muntean as an example for the nature of debates taking place in this forum. Sabin Muntean summarizes in detail and well enough the general disagreements with Paul Wolpe.

      I shall clearly say from the beginning that I completely support Paul Wolpe’s arguments against those raised by Sabin Muntean. I don’t say that the arguments by Sabin Muntean are false. What Sabin says is true, but it’s not sufficient to invalidate Paul Wolpe’s theme and arguments.

      We don’t have to give up trying to reach common ethical basis just because we cannot reach such basis in ALL possible cases. Exactly like, we don't have to entirely give up trying arresting robbers as many as possible just because we cannot arrest all the robbers on earth. The example Sabin gives of children playing on rails is an extreme case where the decision is difficult. And even in that extreme case the debate is which choice is more moral. Nobody claims either choice would be totally immoral. The point is that either of them wouldn’t be fully moral. The only immoral thing would be if one would say, “I don’t care who would die on the rails”, or, “let them all die”. Because we all agree that we have moral obligation to do the best we can to save the children’s lives. This shows the common moral basis which we all have is much more significant than the moral controversy we face sometimes.

      This means that Paul’s efforts in trying to reach certain ethical principles within the topic discussed are justified and most worthy. I also agree with Paul that since it’s a complex matter, it would take time until we will evolve through such debates toward broader common ethical basis. But certainly this does not mean we have to dump the all ethical foundation into trash box due to some difficulties arising from different points of view in some new or extreme cases
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      Mar 31 2011: I hear you Paul. And I definitely see this as a monumental debate/discussion that will decide all of our futures to some degree - especially when we talk about modifying the genome of organisms. For instance, can we be certain that eating genetically modified salmon won't, in the long term, harm our bodies? Does anyone have this answer? And if not, is it ethical in any shape to begin selling genetically modified salmon as food?

      I know well that we've had more than a decade of GMO in agriculture. Some of the staple ag products are all GMO if they're not organic. And yet we face a massive health crisis, for instance, in the U.S. I don't at all suggest that GMO ag is solely responsible - there's way too many factors. Yet, I believe it is fair to say that we don't actually know the extent of how modified soy or corn or canola affect our health. And now, with these crops having been in the wild for a long time, it would be very difficult to undo if we found GMO soy was dangerous to eat.

      For me, I don't think it's possible to discuss ethics without including commerce. So often we see everything from companies right on down to individuals willing to bend, even break, agreed upon ethical principles for the all-might buck. I'm perfectly fine with science exploring new frontiers. What I don't trust at all is when companies decide to make profit off of things that could harm our lives. It happens every day in the pharmaceutical industry. Companies make and sell drugs that are rushed to market for profit rather than the betterment of life. How can we be so sure that playing around with the genome won't just be another method for large companies to make huge profits on technologies that we simply have no idea of the long-term consequences?

      Funding clouds the clarity of research, technological advancement, corporate decision making and government oversight all the time. How can we possibly have a discussion on ethics and leave out financial gains? Seems moot otherwise.
    • Apr 13 2011: I agree with what you are saying. it is confusing how it is considered murder within nazi germany yet there are different ways we as humans perceive murder. that is one extremly good point that i will support. Your best point though is when you say ethics is developeed overtime. Looking back we can all see that slavery is wrong and that the things that occured during nazi germany were terrible and that it will never happen again but it took many years for people to realize this. Time will show that stem cell research was good and that our ethics will change as the time tends to go on.


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