It’s the Authority, not the Debate
Further to this morning’s post about the use of science as an irrefutable cudgel in moral debates, I’d like to draw your attention to Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin’s comparison of the Bush and Obama treatments of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In effect, Bush’s version was designed to have an authority of its own and to ensure that significant policy debates became public debates, while Obama’s might more appropriately be compared with a hospital’s ethics board: the objective is known and supported, and the board lies somewhere between rubber stamp and safeguard against excess.
The problem, rather, is that the commission seems designed to keep bioethics out of the news. Its members are a far lower-profile group than those in Bush’s commission (or, for that matter, Bill Clinton’s). Its charter, which the president signed in November, repeatedly insists that the commission should focus on specific and programmatic policy questions. The president stressed the same point in the statement the White House released at the time: “This new commission will develop its recommendations through practical and policy-related analyses.”
The idea, no doubt, was to distinguish the focus of this commission’s approach from the broader and deeper approach of the Bush council, whose own charter said its foremost task was “to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology” and whose work (including an anthology of readings from great works of literature called Being Human and a report that reflected on the meaning of human-enhancement technologies but did not offer policy proposals) was sometimes described as too ethereal.
As its designers surely recognized, the likely effect of directing the new commission to take up narrower policy questions will be to keep it from taking up the most basic questions underlying our approach to science and technology.
If the primary question guiding the commission is not what but how, the range of topics it may examine is constrained–as so much of bioethics in recent decades has been–to utilitarian concerns and matters of procedure. As with the president’s implicit assertion that there is no debate to be had about embryo research, the idea is to treat the basic ethical questions as closed and to relegate the questions that remain to the judgment of experts. These remaining questions involve, for instance, not whether we should pursue the destruction of nascent life for research but how; not what advances in biotechnology mean for our humanity but how they can be made available to all.
One could suggest that our supposedly deep-thinking president apparently believes that all of the actual deep thinking has already been done. In electing him, we’ve freed ourselves of the need to consider difficult questions of morality and identity, because he’s already figured out what’s best and will impose it as necessary.
I can’t help but think back to President Bush’s Oval Office broadcast banning federal funding of new embryonic stem cell lines. Whatever one might have thought of his intellect, his approach was to lay out the issues as he saw them, including competing arguments, and explain his decision. Frankly, I’ve yet to see Obama say anything half as thoughtful.