Why I hate bioethicists

Yuval Levin, former Executive Director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, has an op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Post arguing that Obama’s new stem cell policy is dangerous. Levin does not argue that stem cell research is bad. Rather he is upset that Obama did not dictate which uses of stem cells are appropriate, but rather asked the National Institutes of Health to draft a policy on which uses of stem cells are appropriate: 


It [Obama’s policy] argues not for an ethical judgment regarding the moral worth of human embryos but, rather, that no ethical judgment is called for: that it is all a matter of science.

This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Lost in this superficially unobjectionable – if banal – assertion of the complexity of ethical issues involving science is Levin’s (and many other bioethicists) credo: that the moral complexity of scientific issues means that scientists should not make decisions about them.

This conflation of science and scientists is offensive and ignorant. In my experience, no one has thought about the moral side of scientific issues more deeply than scientists. While bioethicists like Levin prattle on, reminding us that there are difficult decisions to be made in science, scientists have to grapple constantly with the difficult moral dilemmas that arise from our research. 

Scientists are eager to make sure that the technologies we develop are used appropriately and deployed for the common good. And it is precisely the understanding of the subtle details of technology, and the creativity to see not only the obvious questions new technologies present, but the ones that may arises as the technology develops, that uniquely equip scientists to speak to their appropriate use.

This is not to say that all scientists would make the right moral decision – or that the public will necessarily agree with the scientific community on what is right. This is why whatever policy the NIH arrives at should and will be subject to public scrutiny. But it is important for the public to understand that the decision the NIH makes will surely be a moral one. 

Levin does not understand this. But fortunately Obama does. He decided to leave the decision on stem cell research to the NIH not because he felt that this was a technical decision, but rather because he trusts scientists to make the right moral decisions.

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  1. Posted March 10, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I agree that scientists are not amoral, not raised by wolves, and not hellbent on gaining data and knowledge over the suffering and dead bodies of research subjects. Much of what I know about research ethics in fact comes from the daily struggles of scientists with whom I work, and who always care about more than just scientific values. That’s how I do bioethics. So my question is: why do you hate me?

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted March 10, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Mea culpa. My title should have been “Why I’m really pissed off at one particular bioethicist right now”.

      I must admit I have a bit of a pet peeve about bioethicists, born mostly from the interactions I’ve had over the years at meetings where the bioethicists in attendance have spend virtually all of their energy lecturing scientists about how there are important ethical issues raised by our research, as if this were something we’d never thought about. But the more I think about it, I realize that these people weren’t really bioethicists – they were more like philosophers. So, as penance, I will spend more time learning about what real bioethicists – not the ones who like to spend their time lecturing scientists – really do.

  2. Posted March 24, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I read the same WashPost article and had a similar reaction – not that “I hate bioethicists” but that he was disparaging scientists, as you say.

    What I really think is going on with this particular bioethicist (the author of the WashPost editorial, that is) is that he is basically protecting his own interests. Bioethicists want money and jobs just like anyone else, and this guy apparently feels threatened that scientists might actually be able to consider the ethical issues of stem cell research without his help. Since he doesn’t do science, Obama’s decision threatens his job/power/ego. His position is basically, “we’re the only experts on bioethics – because we say so – so let us handle this.”

  3. Posted March 27, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    There is often a similar “tension” between MDs and (some) bioethicists. From the MD side this usually manifests in things like ethicists wanting to make definitive philosophically-based pronouncements, while the MDs want to talk (often messy) reality.

    One example taken from research might be over whether freely-donated tissue samples can be used later to test things that were not envisaged at the point of donation. Some ethicists might oppose this (“patient autonomy is inviolable, and this violates it”), while the MDs and other researchers want to talk reality (“If you need explicit consent for every test you later do on a biobanked sample for research, you could never do anything. Who is actually being harmed? “Autonomy” is not a person”).

    In the more clinical medical context there was an interesting article and debate about this in the British Medical Journal a few years ago. Anyway, the one thing that comes over clearly in all cases is that ethical philosophising and sweeping statements by ethicists, absent actual engagement with the practitioners (MDs or researchers), makes the practitioners very cheesed off, as we Brits would say.

  4. Posted March 27, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Brit Medical J reference for above comment:


  5. Posted June 12, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    His position is basically, “we’re the only experts on bioethics – because we say so – so let us handle this.”

    Lol , good point Steven ! 🙂

    I agree with all forms of research that does not involve killing or humiliating human beings or even animals, which is not the case here in my opinion an embryo at its early stages is not a human being, not at all, a POSSIBLE future one yes but a body AND soul no !

    P.S: I have a question: does anybody know when exactly the soul come into the body ? and yes there is an answer for this, I just want your opinions 🙂 .