Summary of discussion, Thursday May 5th, 2016
The report in some newspapers about recent developments in Embryo research- eg http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/05/04/artificial-womb-breakthrough-sparks-row-over-how-long-human-embr/ provoked a discussion about the ethics involved in such research. Should we accept that scientific research must be entirely “ethics-free”, on the grounds that if we set any limits to research we are likely to miss out on possible the benefits to society? Or should we be far more realistic, recognising that the motives for research are far more mixed (even sometimes for the sake of academic grants???) rather than for human benefit?
Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish philosopher and sociologist (born in 1925) argues in his book “Modernity and the Holocaust” (published in 1989) that “value-free science” is an illusion, which helped to create the Nazi nightmare: “Indirectly….. science cleared the way to genocide through sapping the authority and questioning the binding force, of all normative authority, particularly that of religion and ethics….. Science wanted to be value free and took pride in being such. By institutional pressure and by ridicule, it silenced the preachers of morality. In the process it made itself morally blind and speechless. It dismantled all the barriers that could stop it from co-operating, with enthusiasm and abandon, in designing the most effective and rapid methods of mass sterilization or mass killing.” (pp 108-9)
Is it the responsibility of society to decide the ethical standards for the way scientific research is to be used, or is this asking too much of society? Scientific research is, almost by definition, often in advance of lay society’s current comprehension- must we then ask scientists to take responsibility for their own ethical standards in their research?
If a society loses its sense of moral standards, decisions will be made according to the distribution of power (“might is right”), which is always unequal. Democracy can easily be corrupted in this sense, with the majority believing they can create policies that suit their interests, irrespective of the impact on minorities.
But where do we find the ethical standards we need? Some would argue that we need to “return” to the “Christian” basis of our society- but this may be increasingly difficult when (as recent research suggests) those claiming to have “no religion” now outnumber those who claim to be “Christian” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/23/no-religion-outnumber-christians-england-wales-study
All schools must now promote Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development in their pupils: http://www.doingsmsc.org.uk/ Perhaps there is a need for similar work among adults.
(This summary is more of a reflection on our discussion on May 5th than a record of what was actually said).