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"Ethics Has a Place in Modern Science"

Gene Fant
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Gene C. Fant, Jr., teaches English at Union University in Jackson, TN, where he also serves at the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.  A widely published essayist and literary critic, he writes on a variety of issues that affect faith, culture, and education.  With his wife Lisa, he is the author of Expectant Moments: Devotions for Expectant Couples (Zondervan, 2002); his next book, God as Author: Toward a Christian Approach to Literary Narrative (Broadman & Holman Academic), is expected to be published in July 2009.  He is a previous Amy Writing Award winner.


© 2007 -  The Jackson Sun;  Reprinted with Permission.

In 1984, I wrote a seminar paper on cloning and genetic therapies for a course in the philosophy of science.  My thesis proposed that the sociological, political, and ethical ramifications of the then-nascent technologies necessitated caution, that we work out the stickier philosophical problems before pursuing all of the research options.

“Well-documented and carefully argued,” I recall my professor saying.  “A good paper, but one significant flaw.  What does ethics have to do with science?  Ethics is not empirical.  Science is.  Don’t mix irrelevant distractions with it.  Trust in scientists to work things out.”

That conversation has stuck with me for two decades now as I have watched new terminologies and approaches multiply, seemingly without end.  In particular I have been interested to watch the developments in stem cell research. 

Certainly theology has influenced my thinking, as I have pondered the subtle ramifications of Christ’s affirmation of the Hebrew ethical framework, found in Mark 12:31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  More broadly, I was impacted considerably by readings in literature.  Swift’s Modest Proposal warns about the pragmatic doom that so easily enfolds the poor.  Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin cautions about treating fellow persons as material property.  Orwell and Huxley, among others, speak to the dangers of mixing big money, government, and unrestrained science.  More recently, Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go explores the hopeless lives of clones, whose tissues are harvested bit by bit until death occurs.  History itself is never far from these cautionary tales, as it documents the horrors enabled by the efficient technologies of oppression and genocide. 

Science is a powerful engine of discovery and productivity.  It strips away our biases and misperceptions so that we may solve problems even as we figure out how the world works.  It is imminently worthy of our treasure and our time. 

Like any tool, however, science has the potential for misuse.  Because it deals with the functions of material of the universe, some segments of the scientific community have an unfortunate tendency to treat living beings, especially persons, like any other piece of “stuff.”   Making the distinction between the relative values of research and its boundaries is not, by its very nature, the role of science.  My professor claimed that science stands above ethical scrutiny.  It is a critical error, however, to treat research as a pristine, transcendent enterprise.   

The truth is that while science is the best system ever devised to tell us what we can do, it is unable to define what we may do.  It cannot define for itself the limits of its reach and scope.  Science needs deeply reflective voices who can harness its power for good.

This is the value I find in writers who critique misapplications of science.  They think through the cutting-edge ideas and identify inherent problems, serving as a conscience that protects the helpless.  They place cautionary boundaries around research agendas, often before actual technologies even exist.

Further, these voices explore which kinds of research should take a priority among the almost infinite range of possibilities, discerning not only what science may do, but also what it must do.  We need research into diseases that may be remedied by genetic treatments.  We need hope for cancers, AIDS, Parkinson’s, and the many other diseases that ravage our world.  We must investigate new treatments; we must not, however, sacrifice the lives of fellow persons in order to achieve these successes.  Not even the lives of the tiniest of babies, who are euphemistically called “embryonic stem cells.” 

Researchers recently discovered that adult skin cells can be modified into functional stem cells, those remarkably pliant entities that hold so much promise in the treatment of disease.  The method still is emergent, but for those of us who oppose the use of embryonic stem cells, it was a joyous moment of vindication for our pleas for discernment and restraint.

Most human endeavors find profound strength in community.   Unilateral actions that fail to consider external voices tend to create terrible failures of judgment.  Science keeps us from being foolish; its critics keep us from being shameful.  Together these partners enable progress toward a better future for us all, the helpless and the powerful alike.


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