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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

From Washington: Ethics, Schmethics

There's a lot of bloviating in Washington, D.C. these days about the ethics of science. These ethical debates usually have little impact, except to provide fig leaves to hide the sometimes unpleasant ambitions of scientists, executives, politicians, and voters. It is extremely rare for these debates to result in ethical limits on the powerful for the benefit of the weak. Herewith, an example.

The National Journal recently revealed a brisk trade in aborted fetus organs. The main, on-the-record whistle-blower is a man whose job was to cut up fetuses at an abortion clinic and mail them to top-notch researchers around the country for prices varying from $100 to $200. A second company offered eyeballs for $50 and an undamaged brain for $999. At least one company was making more than $1 million per year from the trade, and claimed it was legal under a 1994 law allowing the transfer of fetal parts to researchers.

The main ethical defense for this trade is that the dead fetuses would otherwise be wasted. This is partly truefetus organs are used by experimenters around the country to research wonderful cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, AIDS, various eye problems, and so forth. And in at least some of these cases, there is no alternative to the use of fetus organs, except to sharply slow down the research.

This is a utilitarian rationale that has no ethical limits, suggests no alternatives, forbids nothing, and simply offers a slippery slope greased by good intentions. For example, this ethical rationale is so broad it allows researchers to buy more human brains, even if they could also do their task by buying rat brains or the proprietary data from another researcher. After all, the brain is going to be trashed anyway, isn't it? This ethic couldand didalso justify the risky testing of unsafe new drugs on patients, occurring recently at the University of Philadelphia and numerous other universities, the embarrassing publication of which prompted a government science advisory board to recommend loosening of oversight regulations.

Let's try another example. Bill Joy recently made a plausible prediction that someday nanotechnology, information technology, and biotechnology could unite to create a self-replicating, intelligent life force that, in time, would perhaps destroy much life on Earth. No one knows whether Joy is right or wrong, or how to head off such a threat, either within the U.S. or internationally. But it is clear there are no ethical limits among scientistswhose prime ethic is the autonomous search for advancesthat would avert this problem. After all, each scientist in his or her own corner is just doing his or her bit to push the envelope and perhaps float a new company on the stock market. And the breezy claim that future scientific discoveries will heal current scientific harms is not much different than my kid's excuse: "Someone else will fix it tomorrow." At least this excuse has the merit of being mostly true. For example, diseases produced by industrial pollution are treated by modern medicine.

As we citizens are split by our roles as consumer and voter. For example, voters may deeply oppose cloning, but as parents, should they avoid investing in a hot biotech stock that will pay for their child's education?

This utilitarian "scientific ethic" is sharply different from ethics promoted by environmentalists (put nature before profit, and sometimes, before people); by economic left-wingers (don't put corporate profit before public risk), by religious folks (don't mess with God's creation); by foreigners (don't wreck our future for your national benefit); or by communists (kill all our enemies). Still, scientific ethics can be captured easily by some of these ideologies. Witness the extreme case of the ease in which German rocket scientists switched from developing Nazi V-2 rockets to U.S. missiles and moon landers.

It seems Joy does recognize the narrowness of scientists' ethics, which is why he calls for financial rewards to encourage science whistle-blowing, various science-control treaties akin to nuclear arms-control treaties, the Buddhist religion to provide moral backbone, as well as tougher oversight by government-like international organizations. Joy's thesis and solution may be wildly wrong, but he is right that the existing scientific ethic is entirely inadequate to deal with real-world, ethics-of-science problems.

But so is Washington, D.C. There are 536 elected federal politicians in Washington, as well as nine Supreme Court judges and thousands of executives, lobbyists, judges, and lawyers occupying various offices, each of whom answers to his or her own voters, allies, donors, and conscience. All are semi-autonomous political entrepreneurs, striving to make their mark and move up the career ladder. To win, they need to know a million thingshow to fix potholes, get a widow's social security check in the mail, save the Spotted Owl, find legal loopholes, claim credit for someone else's accomplishments, avoid entanglement with other's problems and so on. For them, technology is a vast, rapidly changing mystery, whose main product are happy voters in a booming economy and cancer cures for grandmothers in their districts. They don't have the confidence to contradict scientists who regularly promise such desirable and good wonders as 10,000 new jobs in their district, or who regularly change technology and terminology to nullify existing laws. Neither do many politicians have the long-term perspective to say, "I must reject the alluring thing today because it will result in a bad consequence 20 years from now, even though I will suffer in the next election and only get credit after I am dead."

And should they make the long-term choice, the science community would rise up to defend its (taxpayer-funded) autonomy; various interests groups would publicize real and painful costs of such restrictions, such as the doomed kid who would otherwise be saved or the worker who would lose his job and then be evicted. Moreover, familiar pressure groups, often with short-term and very different agendas, weigh in, as one would expect in a democracy. Thus, industry groups defeat laws intended to stop global-warming, while pre-abortion choice groupswho wish to deny any legal status to unborn lifeally themselves with company-funded groups of patients, biotech companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers to replace an attempt by some Republicans to ban human cloning in 1998. These abortion-choice groups helped persuade every Democrat and several Republicans to back a rival proposal that would ban (until 2008) the birth of live cloneswhile permitting experiments on cloned live embryos and fetuses, providing they were subsequently aborted. The groups also allied to block restrictions on the sale of fetal organs, fearing any such rules could undermine their various goals.

But the real power behind this laissez-faire utilitarian ethic is neither money, nor greedy corporations, nor scientific geniuses. It is us, the voters. We forget our worries once shown the benefits. Moreover, we as citizens are split by our roles as consumer and voter. For example, voters may deeply oppose cloning, but as parents, should they avoid investing in a hot biotech stock that will pay for their child's education? One may believe something is unethical, indeed, everyone may believe it is unethical, but absent uniform laws or strong social sanctionsshame, humiliation, being forced to stand on the street when smokingall are forced to keep pace with each other for fear of seeing ourselves fall behind our neighbors.

Scientists and their sponsoring companies are even less ethical, perhaps because they can reap the first financial benefits of any unethical innovation, and are very willing to perfume the bad with promises of good. Thus the public won't learn about experiments on human clones in high-tech labs until the companies can present them as a lucrative cure for some ghastly disease. Indeed, the biotech industry has recently started a $50 million pro-technology advertising campaign on television, whose main phrase is "Biotechnology. A word that means hope."

Washington has created an enormous quantity of law based on morality and ethicslevy taxes to pay for public goods such as street lighting, or harsh penalties against murderers, rapists, and drug-sellers for the public good, for example. Over decades and centuries, Washington tries to solve ethical problems raised by new scientific discoveries. So the public now has tough worker-safety and environmental protection lawsas well as anti-smoking and anti-firearms rulesthat would have outraged most people who pioneered the industrial revolution throughout the 1800s. And over the next few years and decades, Washington will produce new laws intended to ameliorate the ethical fallout from the information revolution, such as laws restricting the free-speech rights of companies that possess data deemed private by some citizens. But few of these laws restrict science itselfonly its marketplace consequences.

Of course, there may be no way to fix our continuous failure to head off the ethical problems of science, and our continual resort to after-the-fact patching and filling. After all, even creationists and scientific-materialists agree that mankind is imperfect. But even though divided by rival worldviews, they also agree that mankind must forever resist the tempatation to exploit the weak for our selfish purposes.

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Neil Munro ( covers the politics of the technology business for National Journal.

©2000 ACM  0002-0782/00/0900  $5.00

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