- Liberals and Conservatives
The point of one kind of pluralism is that people might quite reasonably take different views on some important questions about life and society, and that those differences, being reasonable, should be tolerated. In the United States at the moment, however, a grudging pluralism is about all that can be mustered. As sociologist John Evans notes on the facing page, American thought leaders "have decided that discussion and compromise are pointless; they have gone in for power politics instead. Opponents are to be given no quarter."
The relationship between discussion and politics figures in several places in this issue of the Report. The issue leads with a special set of essays on the case-turned-cultural-conflict of Theresa Schiavo, which though it looked simple to many, in fact involved some difficult and complex questions. The essays consider both the case and the conflict, take up the complexities, and—seeking to do just what Evans says is increasingly difficult—give weight to the competing views.
A somewhat similar task for a very different topic is taken up in the lead article, in which Erik Parens, a Hastings Center associate, searches for the common ground in the debate over enhancement technologies. This debate is now often described as pitting political conservatives against liberals: conservatives are opposed to technologies that might fundamentally alter human nature and undermine the moral values that depend on certain features of human nature, and liberals are opposed to constraints on individual freedom and scientific research. Parens replaces this way of dividing the contestants with a distinction, adapted from Charles Taylor, between "boosters" and "knockers" of enhancement technologies, then argues that both camps rest, in a way, on similar grounds, for both are motivated by the value of "authenticity"—of not being alienated from that in one's life that is most truly one's own. The camps differ in what they think this is, but the difference is one of emphasis.
The second article, by Kathrin Braun, also tracks the debate between, as she calls them, "techno-optimists" and "techno-skeptics." Braun describes the debate as it unfolded in Germany and as it bears on reproductive technologies and related research. Like Parens, Braun denies that the optimist-skeptic distinction tracks the conservative-liberal distinction. She argues that what underlies it are different views of what ethics is fundamentally about. Techno-optimists think ethics is basically about risks and rights. Skeptics think it is also about broader questions—"'In what kind of society do we want to live?' 'What kind of people do we want to be?'"
As Braun describes it, the German debate managed to air the issues fairly thoroughly, with wide participation throughout society, and without the heated rhetoric that has characterized the American debate. But the German situation may be unique, as Braun notes. According to Alistair Campbell's In Brief, the rhetoric has gone up a notch in Britain, and the regulatory mechanism that has managed to some degree to "bridge the gulf between the extreme positions" is in jeopardy. In the United States, the rhetoric is at full blast, and Arthur Caplan tells us, in Policy & Politics, to deal with it. What was once a set of informal exchanges about ethical and social issues in medicine and medical research, bringing together people from many different fields, has become "bioethics," a field in its own right, that influences policy and therefore finds itself "in a new world—the public arena, a stormy, unpredictable, even dangerous place." Perhaps power politics is part of the new game. [End Page 2]