Love, Yiddish And The Problem Of Bioethics
July 11, 2012
A mother and her son were traveling on a bus in Israel. The child chattered away in Hebrew while the mother admonished, “Yiddish, Yiddish, speak Yiddish!” The son continued to talk in Hebrew while the mother kept insisting that the child speak Yiddish. A man who was sitting nearby piped up, “Excuse me, lady, but why do you insist that your son speak Yiddish?”
“I don’t want him to forget that he’s Jewish,” answered mama.
To think about ethics necessarily involves thinking about where lines should be drawn — which actions are right and which are wrong. For bioethical inquiry, which considers the moral questions raised by biomedical science and biotechnology, it might seem that a natural place to start would be to draw a line around action itself, dividing science into a theoretical and contemplative component on the one hand, and an experimental and applied component on the other. Such a distinction would aim to respect the liberal democratic value of free inquiry, while reserving the right to intervene at the point at which inquiry seeks to employ unethical practice.
Of course, separating scientific theorizing from experimentation is hardly simple. Theoretical advance tends to be intertwined with experimentation, rather than strictly prior to it. Furthermore, one of the distinguishing features of modern science is its tendency to depreciate traditional distinctions between theory and practice, knowledge and power, speech and deed. Knowledge, according to modern science, becomes know-how, in the precise sense that one does not have knowledge of whatsomething is unless one knows how to make it. An ethics that takes its bearings from the putative distinction between theory and practice is therefore bound to prove unsatisfactory in addressing ethical problems unique to the modern scientific age.
Bioethics at its best is not, in any event, concerned primarily with actions themselves, but rather with the meaning of actions — that is, with the kind of thinking about the world that actions both reflect and reinforce. For instance, in the case of embryonic stem cell research, bioethics seeks to address not only the potential injustice done to embryos destroyed, but also the damage done to the soul of the destroyers: what might be the effects on how we regard human life (at any stage), not only from such destruction, but from our convincing ourselves that it is a morally weightless act?
While ethics typically focuses on conduct, it follows that bioethics, and scientific ethics more broadly, must especially be concerned with thoughts and ideas — in a word, philosophy. This is due not only to the meaning of actions conducted in the name of science, but also to the fact that science (unlike the law, business, and most other fields that invite specialized ethical scrutiny) is driven by the pursuit of knowledge — it is inherently inquisitive. Before we seek to determine and enforce the appropriate limits of scientific inquiry, we ought first to understand why men inquire scientifically.
Yet bioethics tends not to explore the question of what motivates scientific inquiry. Many of the most serious commenters on bioethical questions, including those who write in the pages of this journal, seem content to take modern science at its word, accepting that its inquiries are aimed at “the relief of man’s estate.” Accordingly, while conservative bioethicists often argue that some advances in modern science and technology could undermine human dignity and end up doing more harm than good, these arguments generally do not consider the possibility that there may exist deeper motivations for scientific inquiry that might conflict with or even supersede the fear of death, the desire for good health, and the longing for material comfort. Curiosity, deadly not only for cats, would appear to be one example; a certain species of erotic love (eros) may be another.
In what follows, we shall examine curiosity and eros in detail, drawing upon their prominent (though distinct) roles in the major philosophical, Biblical, and mythological accounts of human inquiry, in the hope that this might shed some light on what (if anything) lies beneath the self-professed goal of science to “relieve man’s estate” — and in the belief that if this does provide a bit of illumination, it might in some modest way contribute to a richer and more effective ethics of science.
What we will find points to perhaps surprising dilemmas inherent in science and philosophy, though more particularly in bioethics. Could it be that the task of bioethics is somehow akin to that of the mother in the joke, admonishing her child to speak Yiddish? And might this task prove as difficult as persuading someone to fall out of love?
A Curious Creature
From the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing” — we have it on high philosophical authority that curiosity is of primary importance for human beings. Other perhaps even higher authorities also suggest that curiosity may be the primary human problem. Three of the most famous cases are found in Hesiod’s accounts of Prometheus and Pandora, the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, and Aristophanes’ account of the birth of erotic love in Plato’s Symposium.
Before closely examining these accounts, we should take note of three broad similarities between them. First, each account seeks to explain the origins of the human condition — including much of its unpleasantness — by appealing to primordial man’s initial grasp at some kind of dangerous or forbidden knowledge. Second, each portrays man as unable by himself to overcome whatever powerful forces are at work driving him toward the forbidden knowledge; some kind of divine intervention is required in each case to stop or correct him. Finally, each account portrays a psychic or corporeal division within human beings, the emergence of sexual counterparts, and the imposition of disease and physical hardship as punishments for, consequences of, or natural concomitants to the acquisition of forbidden knowledge.
In the account appearing in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Prometheus is a Titan, one of the immortal gods; his name means “foresight” or “forethought.” He is a clever challenger to the power of Zeus. In a sacrificial meal meant to settle a dispute between mortals and immortals, Prometheus decides to try to trick Zeus, setting before him and offering him a choice between two meals: one a portion of beef from a cow, concealed within the unappetizing container of an ox’s stomach; the other the cow’s bones, concealed within an appetizing cover of fat. Zeus, angered at this deception, “From then on … always remembered this trick,” and would not give the gift of fire to mortal men.
It is clear from the outset that Prometheus, distinguished for his craft and intelligence, is a troublemaker. Indeed, there seems to be something about intelligence that is inherently troublesome. The trouble is not primarily that cleverness deceives — as Prometheus deceives by offering Zeus a falsely decorated sacrifice — but rather that in its capacity to deceive, cleverness supposes that it is itself immune to deception. While he disguises the heap of bones under a thin layer of flesh, Prometheus seems confident that his fire would illuminate all the truths hidden beneath mere appearances…