Celling Out: Bioethics and the Culture of Cool
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A buddy of mine from college, one of the few with whom I still maintain regular contact, is convinced that I misplaced my brain somewhere over the course of the last eleven years. He would never say as much, of course, but I have seen it in his eyes on several occasions, especially when we're discussing politics or science. It's the sort of look normally reserved for someone who is pontificating loudly while drunk—wry and pitying and full of mock interest. Seeing as how these conversations do tend to transpire within the smoky confines of a neighborhood bar, I'll be the first to concede that such an expression on his part might be warranted from time to time. But not always, and not based on the content of my opinions alone.
Here's the thing: I'm religious—a Christian, to be more precise—which automatically makes my perspectives questionable as far as my agnostic friend is concerned. Exacerbating matters is the extent to which my views place me squarely within a "conservative" political framework and thus, in my friend's estimation, a position of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition. And so when conversing on such topics as embryonic stem-cell research or cloning or abortion, we end up at the exact same place every time: with me talking a mile a minute trying to justify my beliefs and him grinning smugly in silence. No matter what I say or how convincingly I present my case, he just nods vacantly—unmoved—like no amount of evidence will ever change his mind as long as it continues to emanate from a nut job like me.
Fortunately for my ego, I eventually came to realize that such intransigence really has very little to do with me personally; rather, it's part of a much larger phenomenon with which those of us attempting to safeguard human life must learn to deal. To state the matter as simply as possible, what I have discovered about my friend is that when it comes to bioethical issues, he's much more concerned with the associations of particular beliefs than the beliefs themselves. For him, embryonic stem-cell research is justifiable—even perhaps praiseworthy—not because logic has led him to this conclusion but in order to align himself with one particular cultural community over and against another. In short, my friend—a devotee of The Daily Show and NPR, a subscriber to The New Yorker, Adbusters, and The Financial Times, and a pretty big fan of both Al Franken and Michael Moore—wants to be thought of as an urbane and intelligent person and so has chosen for himself the political opinions that he believes further this reputation.
My wife probably characterizes the situation best. Why is it, she often asks, that things like abortion and stem-cell research enjoy the support of the coolest people? What she's getting at is a truth my college buddy only subconsciously recognizes: namely, that the espousal of such bioethically dubious procedures has become the default position of our nation's most influential thinkers, tastemakers, and trendsetters. To adopt these same perspectives is thus to advertise oneself as similarly hip and knowing. Plus, one gets to side with most of American academia, the popular press, and of course Hollywood, which is always easy and nice, as well as distance oneself from the increasingly demonized "religious right" and its hopelessly unfashionable moral proclamations. Put it this way: you can either share an outlook with someone smart, well-spoken, and debonair like George Clooney (pro-choice), whose recent Oscar nods have pretty much secured his place as the present apotheosis of the thinking man's celebrity, or with a person like the perennial media pariah Pat Robertson (pro-life), whom Saturday Night Liveparodied this season as ascribing—idiotically—the physical ailments of various celebrities to the wrath of God. For many, the choice is a no-brainer.
Such cultural cachet is not usually mentioned when listing obstacles to principled scientific practice, but it is difficult to deny that social status and a perceived intellectualism are ever more associated with the liberal, laissez-faire approach to science regulation, thereby keeping individuals like my friend from even considering the alternative. Just last month, to cite one recent example, The New Yorker—still somehow, after all these years, an emblem of refinement, erudition, and taste—published an article by Michael Specter that billed itself in part as the first evenhanded examination of the embryonic stem-cell debate. But while indeed couching his claims in the rhetoric of balance, Specter quickly acquiesces to the dictates of appearances whenever an absence of hard facts affords a little wiggle room. "The war over the ethics of using embryos in research has proved costly to American medicine," he conjectures at one point. "Not only has it slowed the pace of progress but for the first time other countries have moved ahead of the U.S." That the benefits of embryonic stem-cell research are completely hypothetical, a point that Specter concedes elsewhere, doesn't prevent the author from passing along this little tidbit of speculative information—the received wisdom, as it were. It's clear here and throughout his article that he feels obligated, for the sake of the magazine's lofty reputation and his own, to indicate in this "unbiased" account where his true allegiances lie.
Precisely why our culture's leading lights—however undeserving of such eminence the vast majority of these people and institutions are—err on the side of recklessness when it comes to the boundaries of human life is a difficult question to answer. Some would argue that the phenomenon is a byproduct of American colleges and universities, which we now know, thanks to a 2005 study by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, are dominated by left-leaning faculty members eager to inculcate students with their collective worldview (self-identified liberals currently outnumber conservatives in our nation's classrooms by a seven-to-one margin). According to Townhall.com columnist Dennis Prager, liberal academics have an entirely different conception of moral progress from conservatives, one that is ultimately feelings-directed. "In assessing what position to take on moral or social questions," he writes, "the liberal asks himself or herself, 'How do I feel about it?' or 'How do I show the most compassion?' not 'What is right?' or 'What is wrong?'" Consequently, when it comes to issues like abortion or stem-cell research, liberals are chiefly interested in empathizing with those in the equation most capable of expressing pain or hardship—of sharing their feelings (which embryos and fetuses obviously can't do). Ethical advancement to this way of thinking is thus synonymous with accommodating an ever greater number of articulated needs and desires rather than increasingly conforming to an external standard of proper thought and behavior. Stemming as it does from the university lectern, such a worldview becomes naturally fused to definitions of intelligence and learnedness: hence the equation of, say, the pro-choice position with enlightened sophistication.
Of course, the obverse of this association is that any willful resistance to a practice like abortion arises from unintelligence. As Keith Burgess-Jackson contends over at Tech Central Station, "the major impediments to moral progress, to the liberal, are tradition, bigotry, and superstition. From this it is but a short step to viewing those who oppose liberal ideas or policies as hidebound traditionalists, bigots, or ignoramuses." Indeed, I would argue that for many the decision to support immoral science and medicine has almost solely to do with distancing oneself from the "dumb conservative" stereotype perpetuated by just this sort of rash liberal inference. It's an attitude perhaps best demonstrated by Robert Brandon, chair of Duke's philosophy department. "We try to hire the best, smartest people available," he announced to the press not too long ago. "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire."
Compounding such slanderous statements is the growing antipathy on the part of liberal academics toward religious belief. In the last several months, we have witnessed two vicious attacks from the left on religion: Richard Dawkins' BBC documentary Root of All Evil and Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell. Both go to great lengths to convince the public that religious individuals are deluded beyond hope—that their opposition to everything from evolution to human cloning to homosexual marriage is accordingly misguided and lacking in reason. When combined with the field day that the media has had with the intelligent design movement, depicting its adherents as thinly disguised Christian fundamentalists trying to corrupt public education, religion has come to represent for much of the country the epitome of idiocy, insularity, and intolerance. And due to its close ties with an already cerebrally suspect conservatism, it is has no doubt likewise served as an additional deterrent to those who might have otherwise adopted a more cautious bioethical mindset.
Whatever the reason for the "privilege" from which the pro-choice-in-everything movement benefits, we must not be taken in by it. In some ways, my constant need to vigorously plead my case before my friend is just this, a desperate attempt to defend a viewpoint that I secretly believe to be substandard or, at the very least, a slight handicap to my social standing—to my coolness. But the flipside of the coin is worse, I think. During the last presidential election I was surprised to encounter an issue of Christianity Today that encouraged readers to avoid single-issue voting, as if where one falls on a life-or-death matter like abortion is not important enough to outweigh any other platform on which a candidate might stand. Such concessions to the culture—for what else can you call a decision on the part of religious individuals to ignore the systematic obliteration of a whole class of human beings?—are hardly different from the moral compromises to high school peer pressure that punctuated many of our adolescences. They are cowardly, immature assents to the allure of popularity and status. No, I am convinced that we must continue—at the expense of approval, reputation, and self-image—to voice our condemnation of any theory or practice that could potentially cheapen life, even if on occasion we find ourselves preaching in the face of utter intractability. To do otherwise is to become complicit with not only the culture of cool but an ethical narcissism that would have us live only for today and our own selfish desires.