Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Setting the Record Straight

Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger with whom we have tussled before, has a newish perch over on one of Discover magazine’s blogs. In a post today, Munkittrick tries to zing Peter Lawler, a contributing editor to The New Atlantis. For now I won’t comment on the substance of Munkittrick’s post; I just want to focus on a prefatory paragraph. He mentions that Professor Lawler served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, then offers this smorgasbord of smears and demonstrable falsehoods:

For those of you unfamiliar with Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I kid you not. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has decided to employ.
Let’s look at these claims one by one.

Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”? No. First of all, stem cell research never “halted” — in fact, it received funding from the federal government for the first time during the Bush administration, and it flourished in the United States during the Bush years. Second, President Bush’s stem cell funding policy was announced on August 9, 2001, in the same speech in which the president announced he was going to create the Council. The Council didn’t even have its first meeting until January 2002, after the policy was already in place. (The Council did, however, publish an extremely useful report in 2004 explaining the state of stem cell research, as well as a white paper in 2005 analyzing some proposed means of obtaining pluripotent stem cells that wouldn’t require the intentional destruction of human embryos.)

Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”? No. The Council never addressed that subject. Mr. Munkittrick is either mistaken or lying. (Go ahead and search the Council’s publications and meeting transcripts for yourself. In fact, the only mention in all the Council’s work comes from neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, an avowed secular humanist who, in contributing a chapter to one report, criticizes abstinence education in passing.)

Was the Council composed of “generally terrible philosophers and thinkers”? I am happy to concede Mr. Munkittrick’s intimate familiarity with terrible philosophers and thinkers, not to mention terrible thinking. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of the Council. Among its members were medical doctors, accomplished scientists, philosophers, theologians, and lawyers, with a wide range of views. It also solicited testimony and contributions from many accomplished and esteemed figures, also with a very wide range of views. The Council’s members were very accomplished people who often disagreed with one another on the subjects the Council debated — disagreements that were sometimes very illuminating. (As for Dr. Krauthammer, Mr. Munkittrick may dislike his views on national security policy, but that has little bearing on his service on the Council.)

Did the Council “rubber-stamp the backwards and anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged Christian base of the Republican party”? The latter part of this statement is just inflammatory nonsense; the former part shows a plain ignorance of the Council’s work. The Council was certainly not a rubberstamp, starting with its first report, on cloning policy, in 2002. It was such a diverse group of scholars with such divided views that it couldn’t have been a mere rubberstamp for any administration’s policies.

But policy wasn’t the Council’s chief concern anyway. As Council member Gilbert Meilaender wrote in an excellent essay for The New Atlantis a year ago, “exploring and examining competing goals” was the primary task of the Council. “Such exploration is unlikely to result in a large number of policy recommendations, but that is not its aim. The aim, rather, is to help the public and its elected representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for human life.” This is the assessment a reasonable person would have of the Council’s work after reading any of its reports, all of which were philosophically deep in their attempts to understand difficult bioethical issues, but generally went lightly on the policy recommendations — so one gets the sense from this post that Mr. Munkittrick is wholly unfamiliar with the reports issued by the body he so quickly dismisses.

Finally, back to Lawler. A respected professor of political philosophy, Lawler is the author of several wise books about modernity, postmodernity, technology, and faith. I heartily recommend his latest book, Modern and American Dignity, as well as his previous book Stuck with Virtue; they both grapple with bioethical questions, and they both reward careful reading.

0 comments:

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field. Comments are moderated for civility and relevance and will not appear until the blog's editors have approved them.]