TCS Daily

Dissecting Taboos

By Nick Schulz - May 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Spring is the season of birth and new life. So it's fitting that the debut issue of the quarterly The New Atlantis: A Journal of Science and Technology arrived with the May flowers. It is a welcome addition to the debate over the impact of scientific developments and advances on public life.

Published in concert with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank, the journal, according to its introductory editorial by Eric Cohen, aims to:
... help all of us to think a little more clearly about the burdens and blessings of modern technology - both in our national politics and our everyday life; to help us avoid the extremes of euphoria and despair that new technologies too often arouse; and to help us judge when mobilizing our technological prowess is sensible or necessary, and when the preservation of things that count requires limiting the kinds of technological power that would lessen, cheapen, or ultimately destroy us. It will consider the larger questions of technology, human nature, and modern democracy, and the practical questions of governing science.

At TCS we are euphoric about new technologies (we hope not extremely so) and are often critical of the despairing lot that derides technological - and its attendant economic and human - progress. So we see a lot of merit in this approach. And while there may be arguments in The New Atlantis with which we will disagree, if the first issue is any indication, nothing in it will be dull, poorly argued or insignificant.

Consider a seminal piece by senior editor Yuval Levin called "The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics." The piece is a testament to both Levin's and the publication's intellectual integrity and courage; because while the naked politics of the biotech debate may favor conservatives who want to impose limits on biotechnology, the intellectual arguments - on everything from stem cells to cloning to germline intervention to mood and mind altering drugs and treatments - simply at present do not.

Don't take my word for it. Levin points out why:

Bioethics is necessarily focused on the deepest and most sensitive of human moral intuitions and taboos - those surrounding birth and death, sex and procreation, pleasure and pain, and the meaning of the body. At the same time, it is also directed toward policy, which in a liberal democracy rightly means that it must be an ethics of fully public argument. It is therefore in the business of public argument about taboos - of making the most private things more public, and shining bright lights on things long left in the dark. Herein lies the paradox of a conservative bioethics. Lifting the veil from society's most delicate implicit moral sentiments is hardly a conservative enterprise, and yet one form of doing just that has become a central conservative project. To succeed, a conservative bioethics must be alert to this deep difficulty and its consequences.

As Levin notes, taboos like incest "all seem to revolve around the avoidance of a deep violation or corruption. ... Its rationale is not generally laid out in detail." But in today's modern liberal society, when men and women are "free to choose" (in Milton Friedman's immortal phrase), and when concrete "reasons" usually must be articulated to justify prohibiting free people from doing as they wish, an appeal to a vague sense of "corruption or violation" usually isn't enough. Corrupting or violating whom? And when "rationales" generally aren't "laid out in detail", it's difficult to articulate them in 20-second sound bites on The O'Reilly Factor, or in a sentence (as Rick Santorum discovered) to an AP reporter, or even in a speech before a hostile congressional committee.

"Modern liberal democracy," Levin writes, "... prides itself on its ability and willingness to discuss all public questions openly, and lay them out fully for debate before the democratic citizen. Modern democracy may have a greater sense than any of its predecessors of the importance of separating private and public affairs, but everything deemed public is, at least in principle, fully discussed and exposed. For good and bad, very few things are left implicit or unspoken in the life of a liberal democracy."

Conservatives' most effective emotional, intellectual and rhetorical weapons often take the form of appeals to tradition, to the sacred, to moral sensibilities over cold reasons, to inchoate senses of right and wrong, to the tried and true over the untried and new. Fairly or unfairly, then, political conservatives can be at a distinct disadvantage in defending their views in today's modern liberal democracies that favor the rigor and clarity of concrete reasons over the (by comparison) flabbiness of sentiment or intuition.

More than that, in defending old sentiments, tropes, and traditions (both for and against certain ways of living and being), by offering reasons for prohibition or permission, conservatives are now often undermining their surest footing. Much like using a swear word too often makes it lose its impact, one risks cheapening and profaning the substance of a moral intuition through "constant handling and trafficking." As Levin notes:

Talking about "the moral status of the embryo" (to take a common case from bioethics) the way we talk about tax credits makes us too familiar with it. By constantly handling it, dealing with it, creating shorthand and acronyms for it, and in general making it a currency of the public debate, we make ourselves less shy, less restrained, and less awed by the deeply meaningful sentiment we are defending. Talk of "pulling the plug," or even "assisted suicide," somehow doesn't leave room for the full human significance of what is involved. Tables comparing the success rates of Gamete Intra-Fallopian Transfer with Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection blind us to the meaning of the act of artificial procreation. In the fog of bland and banal euphemisms and the flood of bioethics acronyms - IVF, PGD, ICSI, GIFT, ZIFT, SCNT, ESC, ASC, and on and on -moral substance can too easily be obscured.

Consider the public debates over reproductive cloning. In some ways the best "argument" against cloning isn't an argument, per se, but a "moral intuition." It is the so-called "yuck" factor - cloning is such a revolting thought to most people that it MUST be wrong. But in having to craft arguments grounded in reason against cloning, as Levin sees it, conservatives may have inadvertently harmed their cause, even as they had no other choice but to formulate the arguments.

They have transformed a sentiment [against cloning] into an argument, and in the process they may well have begun to undermine the underlying sentiment. ... For good and for bad, this seems to be the fate of moral intuitions in a liberal democracy. The very fact that everything must be laid out in the open in the democratic age is destructive of the reverence that gives moral intuition its authority. A deep moral taboo cannot become simply another option among others, which argues its case in the marketplace.

Levin calls this the process of "making the implicit explicit," of "dissecting taboos, hoping to save some of them."

While the conservative effort to defend tradition and taboos against technological advance is exceedingly difficult, Levin is hopeful that it can be done. There is, after all, a deep moral intuition shared by most Americans that is wary of excessive science-based manipulation of human beings and humanity that conservative critics of biotech can tap into to push for their desired political outcomes.

But on the other hand, there is also another deeply felt moral intuition shared by Americans at odds with that more conservative moral intuition that finds wisdom in repugnance (to paraphrase Leon Kass). It is an intuition to tolerance, respecting freedom, and one that desires that individuals and families be permitted to pursue efforts to ease suffering and disease. After all, what American wants to stand in the way of another American harnessing stem-cell technologies to cure his mother's Parkinson's, or a friend's paralysis?

America is the country where it's common for folks to say that while they may personally oppose abortion, they wouldn't want to impose their will on others. Rightly or wrongly, that position emerges in some measure because two moral intuitions are pitted against one another. A compromise emerges, however intellectually inconsistent or uncomfortable.

In a time of conflicting intuitions and uncomfortable compromises, reason and argument will likely serve as a tiebreaker of sorts. By wrestling honestly and openly with the problem political conservatives face in opposing biotechnological development, Levin has done an enormous favor to the biotech debate. If The New Atlantis continues to do the same in future issues, it will become must reading for critics and champions of biotechnology alike.

TCS Daily Archives