Monday, June 11, 2012

“Science and Ethics”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Science and Ethics”
June 11, 2012

There is increasing evidence that advances in science are outpacing man’s ability to ethically adapt.

Like all of nature’s specimens, we are less than perfect. Perhaps it is because of our minds, which allow us to love, think and reason, also help us hate, plot and connive. The country who brought us Goethe, Gutenberg and Mozart also gave us Adolph Hitler. Every carnivore’s instinct is to kill, but it is so they might eat. Man kills more for sport, or in battle. David Brooks addressed this moral vacuum in his last Friday’s New York Times column entitled, “The Moral Diet.” Unlike generations past, Mr. Brooks notes that most of us believe in our essential goodness, despite the fact that most of us lie and cheat in small ways. In past generations, we would have been told we were “depraved sinners” in want of redemption. Both characterizations seem extreme. Mr. Brooks suggests that the next time we are faced with temptation we should neither aim for goodness nor consider ourselves depraved sinners, but we “should shoot for rectitude,” to try to be morally correct in our behavior – a noble goal, in my opinion.

America for some time has been slip-sliding away from many of the moral foundations upon which earlier generations had built their lives. Political correctness precludes us from adhering to a universal code of right and wrong. Any reading of the Founders, their stories, letters and papers provides a sense of their moral code, a code on which this country was founded. In classrooms, up until the early part of the 20th Century, a student’s day often started with a lesson in ethics. In my day, we often started with the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were regular parts of our lives. The idea of a principal nixing the singing of “God Bless the USA,” as happened last week at Coney Island’s PS 90, because, as she put it, “we don’t want to offend other cultures,” would have been unheard of. While there have always been knaves among elected officials (and among the populace as a whole), can you imagine one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence falsely claiming Native American heritage? And, when confronted with her lie, not stepping down in disgrace?

It is not that morality has disappeared, but it seems often absent and hidden from view. We have taken some of these basic truths and re-forged them to comply with the politically correct version of the world in which we live. Greta Hawkins, principal of PS 90 typifies this trend. She claimed that Lee Greenwood’s ballad, also known as “Proud to be an American,” was not “age appropriate,” but that Justin Bieber’s “Baby” was. People like her create moral boundaries that are porous and reflect a loss of a positive sense of our common heritage as Americans.

We come from myriad places, which is reflected in the uniqueness of America. We have provided ourselves a government that increasingly assumes responsibility for more and more aspects of our lives, thereby creating a burgeoning sense of dependency and a shrinking sense of self-worth. Self worth is a derivative of self reliance and personal independence. As those characteristics disappear, so does self worth. Morality, as a consequence, is no longer innate, but becomes what the state says it should be, or what misguided educators like Ms. Hawkins claim it is.

Scientific advancements are coming at breakneck speeds. Most of them are designed to improve our lives. We travel faster; food has become cheaper and more plentiful. We communicate more easily with one another, and we know much more about our environment and treat it far better than we did in bygone days. We have far more leisure time. Medicines and healthcare generally have allowed us to live longer and more comfortably. The consequences of these advancements are ones we must deal with daily – the social aspects of electronic networking and the addictive nature of video games.

These thoughts came to mind as I read a fascinating article in last Thursday’s New York Times by Andrew Pollack. The front page article dealt with doctors at the University of Washington who were able to map the entire genome of a fetus using only a blood sample from the mother and a saliva sample from the father. The samples were taken 18.5 weeks into the pregnancy, or a little more than four months; however the doctors expressed confidence that such tests should be available in the first trimester. For some time it has been possible to determine the DNA sequence of a fetus through tests involving the placental tissue, but those procedures are invasive and risk inducing a miscarriage; thus they are generally only done when there is a strong reason to believe that something may be wrong with the unborn child. Using blood and saliva samples from the parents, on the other hand, would, as Mr. Pollack writes, easily “allow thousands of genetic diseases to be detected prenatally.”

Besides the costs which are high – $20,000 to $50,000 – there remains an unknown element: full fetal genome sequencing, according to Mr. Pollack’s article, would turn up numerous mutations from which one could not be assured of the probability of a disease or condition. Thus it is possible that the termination of a pregnancy may have proved needless. Regardless, the approach will likely lead to more terminated pregnancies because of the presence of some genetic likelihood of disease.

Abortion has already divided the nation. Increasing the frequency will not solve the riddle of the sanctity of life; though the information garnered from a complete genome may make the lives of parents less stressful, or perhaps not. As Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics Society, a public interest group in Berkley, notes “The tests will spur questions on who deserves to be born.” Gina Kolata, in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times, wrote an article, “How Do You Live Knowing You Might Have an Alzheimer’s Gene?” Knowing does not make life easier. Her subject concludes: “We’re just hanging in there. Life can be cruel.” Of course, advances in medical research will at some point produce drugs that may negate the reason for the abortion in the first place. The questions posed are complex and solutions even more so.

Perhaps most important, is the possibility that this approach, once it becomes common (which it probably will) will lead to positive selection, eugenics, if you will – a search for athleticism, intelligence, height, hair color, etc. – decisions that raise far more serious ethical questions, which I doubt most of us are able to handle. It reminds one of Hitler’s desire to create a master race. With the tools available, will we, or will some other country, attempt to do so?

Science will, as it should, keep moving forward. But it is also necessary that at the same time we, as a nation, become fundamentally more moral and ethical. In my opinion, we should start by requiring that schools teach the classics and philosophy. While the focus of higher education increasingly is on courses that prepare us to make a living, we should not slight those that make us better people. There is no reason why ethics should not be taught in elementary school and continued through high school. After all, the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are based on pretty simple precepts, which are comprised of universal rules for civility. The Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoi should be required reading in high schools, as protagonists in these books encounter virtually every emotion and experience known to mankind. Bringing back the military draft would allow young people to better understand the concept of service and selfless responsibility. It would also do away with the practice of a professional army, which is inimical to a free and democratic people.

The questions and the situations we will face in the future, because of advances in science, will become increasingly complex. As a people, we must become better able to deal with the moral consequences those advances bring. Educators like Ms. Hawkins are proof that we are not there yet.

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