The Moral Imperative for Psychologists

Biopolitical Times
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Steven Pinker was one of the first to have his genome sequenced, and he wrote a long essay about the experience in the New York Times magazine in 2009.  He sensibly concluded that your genome could tell you some things, but that there were more direct ways to find out about yourself.  In his words: “If you really want to know yourself, consider the suggestion of François La Rochefoucauld:  ‘Our enemies’ opinion of us comes closer to the truth than our own.”  Pinker seems to have gained a whole new group of “enemies” with his recent Boston Globe op-ed calling on ethicists to leave scientists alone to pursue their research with new gene editing technologies. But it’s at least possible, if not entirely plausible, that Pinker actually agrees with his critics that genetic editing requires regulatory and bioethics oversight, and that he believes that such regulation needs more, not less, attention.

Pinker understands the power of language to shape beliefs.  In his 2009 book How the Mind Works, he noted that “in everyday life” we will need language (and humor) to “undermine the pretensions of countless blowhards, blusterers, bullies, gasbags, goody-goodies, holier-than-thous, hotshots, know-it-alls, and prima donnas.”  I’ll let him decide which one he most closely represents when he “claims authority on a pretext of beneficence and competence” (a strategy he says he despises in How the Mind Works).   

In his recent op-ed, Pinker is, of course, beneficent, promising that science will slay premature death and disability.  His promise, however, comes at a high price:  we must ignore human dignity and social justice.

But if morals are not to matter to scientists, why should they matter to bioethicists?  How can Pinker suggest as a matter of importance that bioethics should “get out of the way” of research because this is (or should be) “the primary moral goal” of today’s bioethics?  Maybe this is because he has always mistrusted morality as being too dependent on philosophy (rather than science?).  As he argued in How the Mind Works,

Maybe philosophical problems are hard… because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them.  We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. 

The argument seems to be, if psychologists think that the human mind cannot solve a problem, humans should not waste their time trying to deal with it.    

The ability to ignore human dignity was on display when Pinker’s own profession of psychology, through the American Psychology Association (APA), decided post-9/11 that it was “ethical” for psychologists to ignore human rights, and to participate in torture at Guantanamo Bay and at the CIA’s black sites.  Of course they thought they were being beneficent and saving lives.  As the playwright Arthur Miller observed, “to perceive somehow our own complicity with evil is a horror not to be borne.”  Only this summer did the APA unequivocally denounce its pro-torture “ethics” and adopt a human rights framework for the profession.  Psychiatrists’ organizations, in contrast, consistently refused to permit their members to join in the torture, even in the ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands of lives could theoretically be saved. 

It is worth asking whether this is because psychiatrists are physicians with a “do no harm” moral tradition; whereas psychologists, who are non-physicians, have no such tradition.  Similarly, most genetic researchers are not physicians, and there is no equivalent of the Hippocratic “do no harm” morality in science. 

Since Pinker knows all this, it is worth at least considering his essay as a cry for help from bioethics to aid in the rehabilitation of his own profession, and to prevent the perversion of science in general.   This is not as far-fetched as it seems since Pinker praises bioethics for setting up safeguards “for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.” He has to be able to see this contradiction which can be resolved only with more, not less, attention to ethics.  

So here’s the real question Pinker raises:  should there be a scientific exception to our laws against committing crimes against humanity?  This is (or should be) an easy question regarding genocide, murder, torture, or slavery.  But mostly what is at stake in the new gene editing techniques is what I have called a “type 2” crime against humanity:  altering humans in such a way as to either irrevocably transform the species itself or to put the human species at risk of extinction (e.g. through a novel pathogen, a risk at the core of “gain of function”—ferret flu type—research).

Put another way, if researchers really, really want to do good, should society simply let them decide among themselves whether the risks to humanity are acceptable?  Can we (morally?) say to our scientists, if you can give us all an extra decade of disease-free life (plausible) by killing all the members of a tribe that lives in a remote jungle of Brazil in some necessary experiment (implausible to be sure), you have our blessings?  To answer this question in the affirmative—it seems to me—means we have already given up the ethical values that make our species worth preserving.   I think the (new) American Psychology Association would agree, and perhaps Steven Pinker would too.

George Annas is Warren Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center of Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University School of Public Health, and Professor in the Boston University School of Medicine and School of Law.  He is a member of the Institute of Medicine, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and vice-chair of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Health Rights and Bioethics (Civil Rights and Social Justice Section). His most recent book Genomic Messages: How the Evolving Science of Genetics Affects our Health, Families, and Future (with Sherman Elias) will be featured in an upcoming Talking Biopolitics conversation.


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