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.

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David S
David S
11 years ago

“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.” Justin writes. I CAN’T HELP BUT THINK BACK– Well that says it all. Backward thinking. Wishfull thinking. Believing. Believing can be good and bad. Bush joined hands with the crowd that BELIEVED that dinosaurs lived 6000 years ago. Justin and these other believers want – really – is not just to have their belief be included in the mainstream of ideas, but to force their belief to the forefront as though it is truth itself.

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

>Frankly, I’ve yet to see Obama say anything half as thoughtful.
If you consider not helping the sick, the dying, the suffering, etc. as “thoughtful”, then you are 100% right.
Bush laid out a nice case for war also. He laid out a good case for tax cuts for the very rich and for our “right” to large SUVs and houses (the American way of life). He laid out a thoughtful case for bringing more faith and less science and reason into our government. He stated a fine case about “teaching all options” such as “intelligent design”.
There is only one problem with all these cases – he was 100% WRONG………
Hey, no one can dispute that GW convinced you and a number of other ideologues and fools that his policies were well thought out. But thinking or fooling does not make it so. That’s where science and reason come in (results!).

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
11 years ago

Prof.Peter Singer of princeton U is on this panel.
He recommends post-birth “termination” of defective infants.
He doesn’t believe newborns are humans for a short period of time.
This man is an animal.
Oh,yeah,he’s also an animal rights activist.I certainly don’t believe in animal abuse but he places animals above human infants.
There is an ugly irony here-Prof.Singer’s parents escaped the Holocaust.Too bad they had this monster.
I am waiting to see if ANYONE can defend this man giving advice to the President.Well,Obama WAS the most vociferous supporter of partial birth abortion in the Senate.
Obama has filled the government with trash.

chuckR
chuckR
11 years ago

Bush joined hands with the crowd that BELIEVED that dinosaurs lived 6000 years ago.
Yeah, so? Algore directly BELIEVED that the seas would be 20 feet higher today than they are. He also BELIEVED that the earth’s core is at several million degrees. Nobody knows that latter, but current theory puts his guess as off by more than two orders of magnitude.
Bush held his hand out to the ‘Bishop Ushers’ to establish if there was some common ground somewhere. Gore IS a Gaian Bishop Usher…..

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

Al gore was not president….although he did receive the most votes.
I assumed we were comparing chief executives!
Bush has made it into history already – one of the worst 10. That puts him in the bottom 15-20% of the class, and among some real winners!
Here are some links:
http://www.c-span.org/PresidentialSurvey/Overall-Ranking.aspx
(survey, not as accurate as below)
Bush is #36 out of 42
http://tinyurl.com/5ecs2x
(maybe slightly more accurate, IMHO)
Bush is #37 out of 43
It’s actually pretty funny to hear Justin constantly defending him……..face it, he never was qualified for that office and was basically a corporate front and idiot disguised as a President.
Sometimes admitting you were wrong is the first step to the right path.

chuckR
chuckR
11 years ago

Presidential history rankings as defined by Brit (or any other) journalists? That’s certainly not conclusive, although I wouldn’t trust professional historians much more. (See http://tiny.cc/714mb, for example). Surprisingly, on a quick look I only strongly disagree with two of the rankings of the Times – Kennedy and Wilson, both greatly overrated but for different reasons. As for Bush, ultimately, his ranking will solidify based on what happens longer term in Iraq and how long the terror war stays an away game, the latter issue dependent on the current WH occupant. I predict BHO will land in the bottom ten of any realistic assessment of Presidents. I already have him below Carter of Presidents in my lifetime, and he’d need a miracle in the next two years, unlikely given his flubbing around so far. In the BP clean-up fiasco, don’t compare him to Bush, but rather to Blanco at the beginning of Katrina.

Monique
Editor
11 years ago

“Yeah, so? Algore directly BELIEVED that the seas would be 20 feet higher today than they are. He also BELIEVED that the earth’s core is at several million degrees.”
The difference, ChuckR, is that where it involves the environment, it’s perfectly fine, in the eyes of some, to be factually wrong. What matters is that you mean well; whether the data and the computer models back up your thesis and your proposed policy is completely secondary.

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