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Urban Rhythms

Brave New World

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/1/2001

In 1997, President Clinton delivered a thought-provoking but largely uncelebrated speech at Morgan State University in which he proposed a set of ethical guidelines to govern the nation's development of science and technology. Without such guidelines, he warned, the marvelous advancements of the late 20th century might deepen the division between the haves and have-nots rather than reduce it.

"Science has no soul of its own," Clinton said. "It is up to us to determine whether it will be used for good or evil. As we consider how to use the fruits of discovery, we must never retreat from our commitment to human values, the good of society, our basic sense of right and wrong."

Pope John Paul II voiced similar sentiments on July 23 when he reminded President Bush that the United States has a "special responsibility" to make "moral choices" that promote fairness and enhance human dignity. "Respect for human dignity and belief in the equal dignity of all the members of the human family demand policies aimed at enabling all peoples to have access to the means required to improve their lives, including the technological means and skills needed for development," the pope said. He went on to caution the president against pursuing what he called the evil proposal to create human embryos for research purposes.

"A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death," the pontiff intoned. "In defending the right to life, in law and through a truly vibrant culture of life, America can show a world the path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology."

I'm not sure I agree with the pope's view about stem-cell research, but he's right to raise the question. He's right to call upon society to make moral choices, to require that we seek technology that respects human dignity. And he's right to suggest that we do so now, while the technology is in its, um, embryonic stage.

Scientists don't like that kind of talk, of course. They like to pretend that their research is value-free, or that any and all advances in our understanding have the potential to make our lives better. Scientists of all disciplines have developed a special sneer, which they reserve for anyone who dares suggest that we think about where we're going and what we're doing. Ignorant clod, that sneer says. You have no idea what you're talking about.

In reality, value judgments get made all the time. Avenues of research are pursued or abandoned. Someone, somewhere is making choices, and those choices are indeed subjective. If we, the caring public, don't make them, the people who pay the bills certainly will. But too often the criteria that define those choices have little or nothing to do with enhancing human dignity.

Four years ago, Clinton proposed four guideposts to help determine how to evaluate the "dazzling new discoveries of science." First, he said, science and its benefits must be directed toward making life better for all Americans, never just a privileged few: "Science must not create a new line of separation between the haves and the have-nots, those with and those without the tools and understanding to learn and use technology."

Second, he said, no discoveries should be used to label or discriminate against any group or individual: "Increasing knowledge about the great diversity within the human species must not change the basic belief upon which our ethics, our government, our society are founded--that all of us are created equal."

Third, technology should not be used to break down the wall of privacy and autonomy that free citizens are guaranteed in a free society.

And fourth, we must always remember that science is not God. "Our deepest truths remain outside the realm of science," Clinton said. "We must temper our euphoria over the recent breakthrough in animal cloning with sobering attention to our most cherished concepts of humanity and faith."

It doesn't take much insight to understand that Clinton's "guideposts" raise more questions than they answer. The pope's admonition that we make "moral choices" that respect human dignity is equally unhelpful. What, after all, is "human dignity"? How does one respect it? Is there a clear demarcation beyond which all can agree that dignity is being disrespected?

Trying to answer those questions these days tends to divide us rather than bring us together. Yet we are obligated to ask. We are the ones who will live with the consequences.

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