Public Language and the Common Good

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2006 issue of Dignitas, the Center’s quarterly publication. Subscriptions to Dignitas are available to CBHD Members. To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member click here.

Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton, recently published another provocative book. Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life is a 400-page rant favoring his own version of scientism against nearly every form of religion and spirituality. His is an equal opportunity harangue. Anyone who is skeptical about Silver’s optimism about some kind of techno-utopian future gets blasted, whether Catholic, evangelical, green, Mother Nature worshipper, or something else.

Moreover, professor Silver says that we should not concern ourselves about future developments in genetics and biotech. “Clearly,” he opines, “it makes no sense to worry about, or try to control, a future society that we can’t possibly understand” (pp. 349-350).

The notion that since we cannot fully know the future we shouldn’t worry about its shape and form is truly troubling to me. Why should our concern for the common good of all humanity not include future generations of our species?  Just because we cannot control the future does not mean that we should not try to minimize harm and maximize good for our progeny.

Not surprisingly, Silver has some rather unkind things to say about some of us.

Evangelical Christian think tanks and lobbying groups proliferate with innocent-sounding names like the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, which is directed by the fundamentalist Nigel Cameron. When Ben Mitchell, a senior fellow at this center, was interviewed in a story about biotech policy on the nationally syndicated radio program NPR Morning Edition, he presented himself as a “philosopher.” He did not want the mostly secular NPR audience to know about his primary academic appointment at an “evangelical divinity school” with a stated mission of “forming students to transform the world through Christ.” (p. 118).

Anyone who knows the Center’s work will laugh at the number of errors in this single paragraph. First, while a good friend of the center, Nigel Cameron is neither a fundamentalist nor does he direct the center. Second, I myself have obviously been “googled.” But, professor Silver did not google enough. Had he done so he would have discovered that my PhD is in philosophy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which has one of the most senior programs in medical ethics of any school in the country. I did my coursework, took my exams, attended my clinical rotations, wrote, and defended my dissertation. I am as much a philosopher as professor Silver is a molecular biologist. At the same time, I am a Christian. The last time I checked, one could be both a Christian and a philosopher.

Professor Silver apparently has psychic abilities of some sort, because he claims to know my motives—that I did not want NPR listeners to know about my academic appointment. In an internet world, how could I possibly have kept that a secret, even if I wanted to?

But this brings me to my point. When it comes to the public debates in bioethics, like most of my colleagues, I argue for the common good. Yes, as a Christian, I have an epistemology that is informed by divine revelation. But when I am on NPR, I cannot expect listeners to share my epistemological commitments. So, I make arguments that will be as persuasive as possible, whether or not one believes the Bible to be true. And, my arguments for or against specific policies must point to a future that is good, not just for other Christians, but for everyone.

How is it wrong to use public language to argue for the common good? Is this some kind of Trojan Horse strategy to smuggle in theistic assumptions? Professor Silver apparently thinks so. He claims, for instance, that in the current debates “Theological terms and ideas are translated into secular-sounding code words and phrases. Sanctity is converted into dignity, and soul becomes life, and the biblical version of morality is presented as a secularbioethics” (p. 118).

The fact of the matter is that the words “human dignity,” “life,” and “bioethics” mean something to those who hear them. So we argue for a future, whether near or distant, where bioethics aims to protect the dignity of every human life. We trust listeners of NPR to understand what those words mean and to be able to judge whether or not our arguments actually are convincing on their own merits.

That is the way it works in a democracy. We have discussions, make arguments, debate questions, suggest legislation, and enact regulations, laws, and policies. And because we live in a democratic society both professor Silver and I have the opportunity to persuade others of a vision for the future of humanity. When it comes to biomedicine and biotechnology, both of us owe it to future generations to argue for the common good, not just for our own idiosyncratic preferences.

 

 

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