Thinking Ethics was a project launched in Geneva to foster the debate about ethics. A few friends, fed up with only reading about abuses in the media, decided to hold a forward-looking seminar on five subjects: ethics and performance, ethics and knowledge, ethics and consciousness, ethics and disobedience and ethics in real time. If moral has to do with right and wrong, then ethics is its application in society. We believe that people need to talk about the subject to determine the level of ethics they want. The book Thinking Ethics, a result of the seminar, is to start the discussion. This blog is a contribution to the conversation. :
Many scientists claim to be agnostic - they can't find the facts to base religion on. And now that CERN has found evidence of the Higgs bozon, which will shed light on the birth of the universe, a definitive split might be happening. However some scientists are trying to maintain a dialog between science and religion concerning the Big Bang. So CERN hosted a seminar between philosophers and physicists to debate the findings. The fact that the two sides are talking is interesting. More here on the BBC site on News- Science and the Environment - Big Bang: is there room for God - by Victoria Gill.
If you were wondering if there was enough of it to warrant a specific ethics interest, the answer is yes. NASA has a their first chief of bioethics, Paul Root Wolpe, a medical sociologist and bioethicist who is also the Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. Apparently he rules on things that could pertain to labor laws, like health and safety of the astraunauts, who are themselves often subjects of research. Health and Safety laws limit workers exposure to radiation - but how to reconcile that when you are in a spaceship with no way to be less exposed... Very interesting article about this by Claudia Dreifus in the New York Times entitled "Scientist Tackles Ethical Questions of Space Travel".
Everyone knows that ethics is influenced by culture. But there seems to be the start of a migration of scientists in the stem cell research area to Asia. Apparently many Asian religions worry less than western religions about "playing god", and take a much more liberal view to cloning. Exellent article and debate on the subject in an article in the New York Times by John Tierney entitled "Are Scientists Playing God? It Depends On Your Religion". The additional links to books are articles are particularly interesting.
The UK is, I believe, the first country to authotize the creation of hybrid (human-animal) embryos for research purposes. The HFEA (Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority) still wants the scientists to make individually applications for their research, but there it is - somehow we are pushing the limits. There is a large ethical debate going on in the UK about this, and a good article at bbc.com outlining the issues here. There will be benefits of this research - of that there is no doubt. But I wonder if this is not a step too far. Once we get used to the idea, what will be the next step? It will be interesting to see if other countries follow, now that the barrier is down.
Biologists are claiming that social behaviors in animals, say primates, are precursors of human morality. So if morality grows out of social behavior rules and is shaped by evolution, then maybe biologists, and not philosophers or theologians should say what these rules are. A very good article by Nicolas Wade in the New York Times entitled "Scientists find the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior" highlights some of the debate going on in Academia on this subject between philosophers and biologists.
Dr De Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, says that empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking are the basis of sociality. He claims that the difference between primates and humans, is that human morality has two extra layers of sophistication: people enforce moral codes more rigorously (rewards, punishment and reputation building), and humans apply judgement and reasoning. Notions such as rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions are totally in the human world. Another academic added that religion would also be a differentiator, as there is no trace of this in the animal world.
Well is is great to see the interdisciplinary discussions. But if human ethical behavior vs animal sociality is defined as concious reasoning vs emotions then I see some problems as we move to a "real time" society, where often there is no time for reasoning (think about live TV coverage of conflict zones), and instant decisions are based on individual emotions. So does that make us regress to animal level (if there is such thing as a hirarchy)? Or can we internalize ethical considerations into the decision process by education - thus influencing our emotional response when the time comes?
The UK public is being invited to have their say on the future of science and technology. Sciencehorizons, a government funded program, is trying to launch a debate that will engage not only scientists, but the public at large. In view of future ethical debates that will arise due to advances in science, the government aims to let people make informed decisions about how to use and develop technology and scientific discoveries. The site is rather playful, with downloads of stories and cartoons about life in 2025, and covers things like intelligent materials, heathcare and human enhancements. more
For or against ? the debate about embryonic stem cell research got a boost with the announcement that a California biotech company, Advanced Cell Technology, has managed to extract a cell from an embryo without destroying it. This should remove many of the objections from religious bodies, but given how the conservatives seem to impose their view of morality on scientific endeavors, it does not look like we will be seeing any federal funding for this quite yet. Good editorial on the subject in the New York Times.
There are calls in the Roman Catholic Church to excommunicate researchers who use embryos in their stem cell research. Although I have heard many people active in the science and medical communities call for a convergence of science and the humanities, in order to bring an ethics dimension into the decision process, I don't think this is quite what they had in mind. This article entitled "Excommunication is sought for stem cell researcher " by Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times talks about the issues. We have disconnected science and religion in the last 300 years or so (remember when Copernick had to swear the sun moved around the earth...), and science has been able to move forward at an incredible rate. We are now reaching the limits of this single minded approach, and the use, or rather misuse, of innovations and discoveries needs to be taken into account. But an interference of the Roman Catholic Church with an edict on what can or cannot be done under threat of excommunication smacks of sanctions of a bygone era.
There seems to be a clear scientific issue with the ethical dimension... Take nanotechnology as an example, and apply it to electronics. So we get nanoelectronics. This gives us tiny, better circuitry, and we can develop much better sensors. Which could have a whole host of applications in the health field. But what if it is used for an electronic system for smart bombs ? Engineering should provide the solutions to the problems of society and humanity. We need to reintegrate ethics in decision making in engineering education.
And then there is the whole issue of the use of the discoveries. Everybody agrees to give memory enhancing drugs to patients who need them. But what about giving it to your kids to help them in school ? My body, myself ? or maybe regulation become the norm in education, and not only in sports.