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Book Review. Can We Talk?

Andrew Ferguson

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About the moral dimensions of science.

In the Shadow of Progress
Being Human in the Age of Technology Eric Cohen
Encounter, 181 pp., $21.95

Eric Cohen's measured, well-reasoned book on the ethical implications of new medical advances, In the Shadow of Progress, arrives like a spring breeze, fresh and calm and cleansing, something to be welcomed by anyone who follows bioethics and its controversies.

Let me tell you: It's getting brutal out there, this culture war between superstitious theocratic thugs and baby-killing pagan nihilists. By superstitious theocratic thugs, of course, I mean those religiously inclined folk who object to embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, genetic engineering, and other projects of today's biomedical science. The baby-killing pagan nihilists are the scientists themselves, or a lot of them anyway, along with their publicists and cheerleaders in the press, who think the objections to unfettered research are specious, irresponsible, and murderous.

Foremost among the second group, the pagan nihilists, is Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard and a suave and gifted writer of popular science books. Pinker is rightly admired for his quick wit and light touch, yet even he has lately succumbed to the grinding, pitiless tone of the politico-cultural debate.

In a much-noticed, less-read article in the New Republic not long ago, called "The Stupidity of Dignity," he told a dark story of the reactionaries who would restrict the ability of scientists to do the research they want to do. The reactionaries form a "powerful" movement, Pinker said, that has its origin in such Christian strongholds as Georgetown University. The leader of this movement of Christian theocrats is--couldn't you just guess--a Jewish philosopher, Leon Kass. Like the Christian soldiers he captains, Kass is "pro-death [and] anti-freedom." His position as Maximum Leader was confirmed in 2001 when President Bush appointed him chairman of a government advisory council on bioethics. Kass proceeded to fill it with his theocratic allies. The council was stacked! When two commission members dared to oppose Kass on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research--he's against it--the chairman fired them. Just like that. As thugs do.

The thugs are philosophically shabby, too, according to Pinker. (This was the intellectual rather than the ad hominem part of his article.) Kass and his allies have fixated on this idea of "human dignity." Anytime a scientist wants to do something interesting with a human being, like harvest its stem cells or make an itty-bitty clone of it, Kass complains that the research violates something called human dignity. But the word "dignity" has too many meanings to be useful in describing reality, Pinker wrote. Much better, he said, to use the idea of "autonomy" as a guide to making judgments in bioethics. Autonomy is what makes human beings worthy of respect. Dignity, by contrast, is a "squishy, subjective notion," "slippery and ambiguous," "a mess."

Read the entire article on the Weekly Standard website (new window will open).

Posted: 10-Sep-2008

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