- Thoughts on the Purpose of the President's Bioethics Council:Expert Consensus vs. Dignified Conflict
Here are a few reflections based on my service on President Bush's Council on Bioethics. Bush's Council—especially when it was headed by Leon Kass—was criticized for being a sort of pseudo-Socratic debating society that aimed to illuminate or even encourage senseless moral conflict among Americans rather than aim at consensus based on scientific truth and American principle. It was also criticized for being too worried about the effect that scientific, technological, and biotechnological progress might have on human dignity. Dignity, the criticism went, was used as a codeword for stifling science and the benefits it can provide with discredited, repressive moral dogmatism. The sociobiological psychologist Steven Pinker was especially aggressive that all concern with "dignity" is fueled by merely religious impulses; the word corresponds to nothing we can scientifically observe about human beings. So it must be nothing more than a sectarian weapon to oppose innovative medical breakthroughs that aim to enhance the pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness that should characterize our secular democracy. There is no good reason that dignity should trump the use of science and technology "to maximize health and flourishing."
Putting these criticisms together, it is easy to reach the conclusion that the moral conflict that separates Americans is not reasonable at all. Those opposed to the destruction of embryos for research, for example, want to slow or stop scientific progress that is bound to alleviate the suffering and save the lives of millions with an opinion about the status of the embryo for which there is no objective evidence. Those who want to outlaw abortion want to impose their religious opinion about who or what a fetus is on women at the expense of their equal right to be free to choose who they are and how they want to live. Those obsessed with the allegedly undignified possibility that mood enhancing drugs might allow us all to feel good without actually being good are nothing more than Puritanical prohibitionists. All of technological progress, after all, has aimed at increasing human comfort while reducing human drudgery. Does it really make sense to choose unnecessary suffering just to have an opportunity to display your dignity? Nature, without lots of technological improvements, treats particular persons with random cruelty and undignified indifference.
President Obama has appointed an advisory council that will offer him definite policy guidance based on reasonable consensus. That consensus, in other words, will be the product of expert reflection on the deeper implications of American civic deliberation. To find that "common ground," all Americans have to do is acknowledge, with expert help, what we really know through science and the American values we share in common. On abortion, for example, we know that there is no compelling evidence that a fetus is a person with rights, and we know that women need to be able to exercise reproductive choice to be equal individuals with men. Men, after all, have the unlimited freedom to choose not to have babies.
The president adds, of course, that we must respect those who dissent from the consensus. But that does not mean that we can allow their disagreeable opinions to influence public policy, and what the president calls reasonable respect for their conscientious judgments is actually quite limited. Bush's discredited, self-indulgent "conscience clause" unreasonably allows physician and nurses to not put the patient first. It allows beliefs based on religious values that Americans do not hold in common to trump professional duties.
In his press remarks on March 3, 2009, the president went even further. He admitted he did not think there were any real conflicts, because the dissenters were really wrong. Consensus emerges when the experts and gifted rhetoricians work together to replace error with truth, or, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, when they successfully displace "monkish [or evangelical or fundamentalist] ignorance and superstition" with "the light of science." The president clearly assumes that the division in the country is between religious error and scientific truth, and so it is only reasonable to assume that all the leading experts agree.