How are ethical policies justified?

January 20, 2016

Pär SegerdahlEthical policies for practices such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research should, of course, be well justified. But how does one justify that activities involving the destruction or killing of human embryos and fetuses should be allowed? How does one justify that they should be banned?

Just because the issues are so sensitive and important, they awaken a desire to find the absolutely conclusive justification.

The questions arouse our metaphysical aspirations. Ethicists who discuss them can sometimes sound like the metaphysicians of the seventeenth century who claimed they had conclusive arguments that the soul affects the body, or that it absolutely cannot affect it; who thought they could prove that God is the soul of the world, or that such a view detracts from God’s perfection.

Since both parties claim they have absolutely conclusive proofs, it becomes impossible to exhibit even the smallest trace of uncertainty. Each objection is taken as a challenge to prove the superiority of one’s own proofs, which is why metaphysical debates often resemble meetings between two hyper-sensitive querulants.

This is how I perceive many of the arguments about the embryo’s “moral status,” which are believed to provide conclusive evidence for or against moral positions on abortion and embryonic research – based on the nature of things (i.e., of the embryo).

Others, who want to reason more rigorously before drawing conclusions, instead scrutinize the arguments to demonstrate that we haven’t yet found the metaphysical basis for a policy (you can find an example here). From metaphysical dogmatism to metaphysical pedantry.

The metaphysical vision of an absolute path through life does not seem to give us any walkable path at all. It does not even allow meaningful conversations about what we find sensitive and important. But isn’t that where we need to begin when we look for a justification?

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

 


From tree of knowledge to knowledge landscapes

May 7, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogScience was long revered as free and self-critical pursuit of knowledge. There were hopes of useful applications, of course, but as fruits that once in a while fall from the tree of knowledge.

In a thought-provoking article in the Croatian Medical Journal, Anna Lydia Svalastog describes how traditional reverence for science and devout hope of fruits from above in practice disappeared with World War II.

Researchers who saw science as their calling instead found themselves called up for service in multidisciplinary projects, solving scientific problems for politically defined aims. Most famous is the Manhattan project, intended to develop an atomic bomb to alter relative military strengths.

This way of organizing research has since then become the rule, in a post-war condition in which research initiatives aim towards altering relative economic strengths between nations. Rather than revering science, we value research in project format. We value research not only in economic terms, I want to add, but also in terms of welfare, health and environment.

From the late 1970s, political and economic interest in research shifted from physics to the life sciences and biotechnology. Svalastog mentions examples such as genetically modified organisms (GMO), energy wood and biological solutions to pollution. It is difficult to say where research ends and applications begin, when interest in applications governs the organization of research from the outset.

The main question in the article is how to understand and handle the new condition. How can we understand the life sciences if society no longer piously anticipates applications as fruits from above but calculates with them from the beginning?

Svalastog uses a new concept for these calculated fruits: bio-objects. They are what we talk about when we talk about biotechnology: energy wood, GMO, cultivated stem cells, vaccines, genetic tests and therapies, and so on.

The point is that science doesn’t define these objects on its own, as if they still belonged to science. Bio-objects are what they become, in the intersection of science, politics and society. After all, vaccines don’t exist and aren’t talked about exclusively in laboratories, but a parent can take the child to the hospital for vaccination that was decided politically to be tax-financed.

Instead of a tree of knowledge stretching its fruit-bearing branches above society, we thus have flatter knowledge landscapes in which a variety of actors contribute to what is described in the article as bio-objectification. The parent who takes the child to the hospital is such an actor, as is the nurse who gives the vaccine, the politicians who debate the vaccination program, the journalists who write about it… and the research team that develop the vaccine.

Why do we need a concept of bio-objectification, which doesn’t reverently let the life sciences define these objects in their own terms? I believe, to understand and handle our post-war condition.

Svalastog mentions as an example controversies about GMO. Resistance to GMO is often described as scientifically ignorant, as if people lived in the shadow of the tree of knowledge and the solution had to consist in dropping more science information from the tree. But no links with levels of knowledge have been established, Svalastog writes, but rather with worldviews, ethics and religion.

What we need to handle our condition, Svalastog maintains, is thus the kind of research that was neglected in the post-war way of organizing research. We need humanistic research about knowledge landscapes, rather than instinctive reactions from a bygone era when the tree of knowledge was still revered.

I presume that this humanistic research too will be performed in project format, where humanistic scholars are called up for research service, studying the contexts within which bio-objects are understood, handled and valued.

Undeniably, however, some interesting thoughts about our condition here hover more freely above the knowledge landscapes.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


How does biotechnology become real?

March 12, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogSeeing things with our own eyes, not just hearing about them, makes a difference. Words certainly arouse images, but they are our own images of what we never saw.

This is a challenge for the rapid development in biotechnology. Genetically modified organisms are created, in vitro fertilization is practiced, stem cells are grown, and biobanks are constructed.

For most of us this is only hearsay. The words we hear arouse images, but as I said: images of what we never saw with our eyes. When we then respond to new forms of biotechnology, perhaps with anxiety or a sense of unreality, it is often our own images we respond to.

It’s like trying to form an opinion of a person who is hidden in a cloud of rumors. What a difference it makes to actually meet the person, and not only respond to the images that the rumors create within us.

Increased popular scientific efforts don’t automatically solve the problem. On the contrary, relying too much on the visual potential of, for example, computer animation can contribute to the cloud formation. People are stimulated to create even further images of what they never saw.

So how can biotechnology be made real? I believe: by showing what can be shown. Just seeing a genetically modified tomato or a person who underwent stem cell treatment makes biotechnology more real to me than any image of the DNA helix or stem cell differentiation can.

Seeing what can be shown – often practical applications – doesn’t necessarily make me approve of all forms of biotechnology, but I can discuss the technology without being too much distracted by my own cloud of images. I can discuss what became real.

How new forms of biotechnology can become real for the public is discussed in a new article in the Croatian Medical Journal, written by Anna Lydia Svalastog, Joachim Allgaier, Lucia Martinelli, and Srecko Gajovic.

They introduce the notion of Knowledge Landscapes to think more concretely visually about communication with the public about new forms of biotechnology. They emphasize science museums as one arena where biotechnology can be discussed as a reality rather than as an urban myth.

Show what can be shown.

Pär Segerdahl

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


Stress turns ordinary cells into pluripotent stem cells

February 19, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogTissues of the body originally form when “naïve” undifferentiated embryonic stem cells differentiate to form the “mature” cells of specific tissues: liver cells, brain cells, skin cells, and so on.

The mature cells are then locked in their differentiated forms, as if they met their fate.

I recently mentioned that Yamanaka and Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for their surprising findings about dedifferentiation. Through direct genetic modification of nuclear function, mature cells can be reprogrammed to return to naïve stem-cell states. These dedifferentiated cells are pluripotent and can differentiate again and form a variety of mature cell types.

The rejuvenated cells regain the naïve properties of embryonic stem cells!

In January this year, an article published in Nature reported that the genetic reprogramming can be achieved more easily, without direct nuclear manipulation.

All you need to do to dedifferentiate mature cells, according to this article, is to subject them to stress: like an acid environment. Not all but some of the mature cells will be freed from their fate as liver or skin cells and return to naïve pluripotent states.

An easy to read summary can be found in BioEdge, and here is a link to the article:

Using mature cells to create stem cells with properties of embryonic stem cells might thus be easier than expected. In fact, the new findings weren’t even made in a stem-cell laboratory.

The ethical responses to the findings are not as thrilling as the findings. Some welcome the possibility of creating “ethical stem cells” that avoid the controversy about embryonic stem cells. Others see “new ethical issues” on the horizon.

These responses are characteristic of a routine view of ethical assessment as a static one-way process: ethicists assess others. But these findings indicate that processes in the opposite direction are possible as well, since they seem to challenge ethical assumptions about the unique function of the embryo.

I’m tempted to extend Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions to ethics. The new findings could function as anomalies for ethically paradigmatic ways of thinking about the embryo.

As stress turns mature cells into naïve pluripotent stem cells, these findings could stress some ethicists to return to more open-minded states that in the future can differentiate in new and unexpected directions.

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging findings - The ethics blog


Scholastic reasoning versus modern cell biology

January 30, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogEmbryonic stem cell research can find effective treatments for a wide range of currently untreatable diseases. No wonder embryonic stem cell research can be perceived as an important practice.

A human embryo can develop into someone’s child, who breathes, talks and lives. No wonder embryonic stem cell research can be perceived as a controversial practice.

What interests me here is how these two in my view humanly comprehensible perceptions of stem cell research are translated into an intellectual arena called “ethical debate.”

On this arena, forms of reasoning with different historical roots meet to combat each other. The idea is that here finally the issue shall be settled: is embryonic research, as a matter of fact, morally controversial, or is it not?

Or are we rather debating Aristotle versus modern cell biology?

Attempts to prove that the research is controversial bear witness of a legacy from the metaphysics of Aristotle. The human embryo is supposed to have a unique potentiality to become a person: a potentiality so actively present in the embryo that the embryo is to be understood as a “prenatal person” or as a “potential person.”

Attempts to disprove such scholastic claims instead rely on the latest scientific evidence in cell biology. In 2012, Shinya Yamanaka and John B. Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on what is called “dedifferentiation.” Stem cells derived not from embryos but from, for example, skin cells can be genetically induced to regress into less differentiated states that in turn can differentiate into various directions.

These findings are invoked in an article in The American Journal of Bioethics to finally take leave of the argument from potentiality:

  • “Technically speaking, fertilized egg cells (earliest embryos), iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells), and skin cells are all potential ‘baby-precursors,’ in part due to modern cell biology.”

So much for the unique potentiality of the human embryo: a skin cell will suffice.

To what extent do such debates concern the two perceptions of stem cell research in their human comprehensibility?

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


What are absolute borders made of?

December 17, 2013

I return to the question in my previous post. I was wondering why biotechnological developments repeatedly invite moral responses in terms of borders that shouldn’t be transgressed by humans. (Think of stem cell research using human embryos.)

What is fundamental in these responses? Is it the absolute border? Do people already have stable notions of borders that shouldn’t be transgressed by humans, as part of semi-metaphysical views of life? Do they respond, “Controversial!”, because they deem some new practice to be transgressing a border that already is in place within their view of life?

Or is the notion of the border itself part of the reaction? Is “the absolute border” reactive rather than the source of the reaction?

I’m inclined to say that the “absolute border” arises with and through the reaction. Let’s call it the intellectual part of the reaction. It is how the reaction presents itself as legitimate; it is how the reaction transforms itself into a reason against the new developments.

The notion of an “absolute border” is how the reaction translates itself into the “space of reasons.”

If so, the recurrent reaction is almost bound to misunderstand itself in accordance with my first suggestion: the border will be perceived as basic, and the reaction will present itself as rational verdict: “The absolute border is being transgressed here; therefore, a moral response is in order!”

We must not forget that entire views of life can be reactive. Even when they are beautiful and admirable human achievements, their function can be that of digesting reactions and providing them with meaning.

My conclusion is that if we want to understand these recurrent reactions, we must not be fooled by how they spontaneously translate themselves into “the space of reasons.” We need a practice of back-translation.

We seem bound to repeatedly misunderstand ourselves. Our much praised faculty of understanding easily becomes a faculty of misunderstanding.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Should ethical review boards begin to act like business accountants?

December 16, 2011

The company Geron recently decided to stop its unique clinical trial concerning treatment of spinal cord injury with neural cells derived from human embryonic stem cells.

In a previous post on this blog, I used the company’s decision to illustrate a possible consequence of the European ban on stem cell patents requiring the destruction of human embryos. The same day I posted my consideration, Francoise Baylis published a wholly different perspective on Geron’s decision…

Geron claims that the decision to stop the trial was made for business reasons. They wanted to concentrate their limited resources to their oncology drugs. However, the decision left the four research participants that had been enrolled in the trial in a vacuum.

Geron says it will continue to study these participants and report findings. But the trial was originally meant to include ten participants. Will results with only four participants be scientifically valid, Baylis asks. If the results are valid, then using ten participants, as originally planned, would have meant using more patients than required for producing valid results. If results with four participants are not valid, four patients are exposed to risk without any prospects of countervailing new knowledge.

– Which conclusions can be drawn from this example? Should the practices of ethical review be changed for applications from the private sector? Should financial resources and business strategies be included in the issues to consider? That seems to be Baylis’ response to Geron’s decision to quit stem cell research.

For my own part, I think we need more than one example before we consider making ethical review practices even more complex. A more time-consuming process of ethical review has a cost that we need to acknowledge…

As Simon Whitney summarized his views on the expansion of ethical regulation of medical research, “since biomedical research saves lives, it is unsurprising that the regulation of research costs lives.” – It may be unethical to make the process of ethical review even more cumbersome. Patients die when life-saving research is delayed. That cost must be brought into the equation when we consider single examples of ethically problematic conduct that we may wish to regulate against.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


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