TCS Daily

The Kass Council: Some Advice

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 23, 2002 12:00 AM

The President's Council on Bioethics, chaired by Professor Leon Kass, is now up and running. Having served on a White House advisory committee myself (back under the prior Bush Administration) and having watched others succeed and fail, I have some unsolicited advice for Professor Kass and his councilors.

  1. In the words of Han Solo, "don't get cocky." The charter for your Council is appropriately modest. The President hasn't asked you to solve all the ethical problems presented by new technologies, or their critics. In one part he notes:
    [T]he council shall be guided by the need to articulate fully the complex and often competing moral positions on any given issue, rather than by an overriding need to find consensus.
    At this point, a map is more useful than sailing directions, and more likely to be attended to.

  2. Don't get insular, either. The Council has already been criticized for its makeup, which is heavy on techno-critics and light on technological optimists. As one critic emailed me, "they're thoughtful people, they just think alike." (This may be an exaggeration, but not totally. Prof. James Q. Wilson has been included, presumably for balance, but he's already balancing another controversial panel. He can't possibly balance two).

    Again, the President's instructions are worth remembering:
    The council may . . . choose to proceed by offering a variety of views on a particular issue, rather than attempt to reach a single consensus position.
    To this I would add that the council should entertain a variety of different views, as well. Be sure that technological optimists, and advocates for patients like Christopher Reeve, are given the chance to present their views to the Council, in public. Freeze out the people you disagree with, and nobody will listen to your conclusions anyway.

  3. Define your questions carefully. I shouldn't have to give this advice to a group so heavy on philosophers, but news accounts suggest that I do. Among the materials already distributed to the Council is a proto-science-fiction story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about science gone bad. This was a theme of Hawthorne's: immortality potions gone awry and the like. But be honest: the big issue confronting your council isn't science that doesn't work. It's science that does work. Based on his prior statements, Professor Kass would be far more troubled by an immortality serum that worked perfectly. If you're going to address issues like therapeutic cloning or germ-cell therapy, you need to be clear whether you're talking about front-end teething problems that will be solved eventually, or ethical concerns with the technology's impact that would, in fact, be greater if the technology were cheap, effective, and free of side-effects. (You might consider broadening your taste in science fiction to include more modern writers, like Greg Egan or David Brin, who wrestle with precisely these issues).

  4. Keep it real. The Council is rather heavy on philosophers and ethicists, who make up a majority of its members. There's nothing wrong with such people, but the record of philosophers in public policy over the past century hasn't been exactly brilliant. Deep thoughts are fine, but lots of people - from investors in biotechnology companies, to scientists planning research agendas, to sick people who hope for a cure - will be watching what you do. Keep them in mind, too.

  5. Remember that it's not just science that has limits. Realize that the federal government can guide, but it cannot steer. The most powerful influence that the federal government can have on the development of these technologies will be just that: influence, not outright control. If it outlaws a technology that people want, the technology will simply move offshore, diminishing the government's power over what comes next. The greatest power that ethicists might have is in helping people figure out what they want. But doing that requires compassion, a respect for different opinions, and a light touch. People care about consequences, and often are willing to refrain from behaviors they see as bad for society. But they have to be persuaded that "bad for society" isn't just a synonym for "unpopular with certain people." And as the 55 mile per hour speed limit demonstrated, the power of brute law to alter behavior is limited, especially in a nation that prizes freedom and resents government intrusions.

Many people will be watching the President's Council on Bioethics. If it approaches its work with sensitivity, humility, and thoughtfulness, its product can be a force for good.

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