Bioethics Forum Essay

Something Is Actually Happening: Are Bioethicists Doing the Right Stuff?

There’s a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian that always reminds me of academia. It goes like this: The year is 32 A.D. and Brian, an unwitting doppelganger of Christ, is about to be crucified by the Romans. Judith, Brian’s lover and fellow member of the anti-Roman People’s Front of Judea (PFJ), rushes to the group’s lair to tell her fellow PFJers the news. This is how the conversation is shaping up just before Judith bursts in:

Loretta: Let’s face it. As empires go, this is the big one. So we’ve got to get up off our asses and stop just talking about it! [All cheer.]
Eddie: I agree. It’s action that counts, not words, and we need action now! [All cheer.]
Reg (the leader): You’re right! We could sit around here all day, talking, passing resolutions, making clever speeches! It’s not as if one Roman soldier. . .
Loretta: So let’s just stop gabbing on about it! It’s completely pointless, and it’s getting us nowhere!
All: Right!
Eddie: Agreed. This is a complete waste of time!
[Judith rushes in; ominous music plays.]
Judith: They’ve arrested Brian!
Reg: What?!
Judith: They’ve hung him up! They’re going to crucify him!
Reg: Right! This calls for immediate discussion!
[The group then goes on to start passing new resolutions.]
Judith: Reg! You’ve got to do something now, please!
[Reg et al. “do something” by continuing their discussion of resolutions.]
Judith: Reg! For God’s sake, it’s perfectly simple. All you’ve got to do is to go out of that door now and try to stop the Romans nailing him up. It’s happening, Reg! Something’s actually happening, Reg! Can’t you understand?!
[They all look at Judith blankly. She screams in frustration and rushes off.]
Reg (to his buddies, with a nod in Judith’s direction): Well, a little eager trip from the feminists.

The group then goes on planning resolutions.

I thought of this classically academic scene most recently while reading the Hastings Center Report Perspective by Timothy F. Murphy and Gladys B. White, “Dead Sperm Donors or World Hunger: Are Bioethicists Studying the Right Stuff?” Murphy and White note that some bioethicists have chastised their peers for chasing these ethical questions that arise from harvesting gametes from dead men and women for use in reproduction. The authors go on:

“When the topic [of gamete harvesting] came up in an online bioethics group, one participant called attention to it obscene, in light of global problems concerning health care, hunger, and homelessness. In a couple of commentaries in the British Medical Journal, the bioethicist Leigh Turner has argued that if we mapped bioethicists’ activities onto morbidity and mortality from a global perspective, we would see surprising disparities between what the intellectual vanguard of bioethics is doing and what the real-world needs of most people are.”

Murphy and White concede that “Disasters like the January 2005 tsunami . . . can make the question of gamete harvesting look trivial,” but, they then ask, given that “there are pressing questions [about gamete harvesting] with important legal and policy implications[,] how could bioethics not pay attention to them?” The authors suggest that not only does paying attention to emerging technologies help to get ethically ahead of the biotechnical curve, but that “political advocacy can be improved by thinking about the ethics of biomedical innovations.” Indeed, they argue, because the ethical questions about gamete harvesting are fundamentally about relationships, asking those questions might ultimately touch on the problems of “scourges and mass calamities,” since those, too, are fundamentally about relationships.

Surely Murphy and White are right that learning from one field of inquiry might ultimately shed light on another seemingly unrelated field. As a historian of science and medicine, I know how challenging it would be to predict what kind of learning will lead where. “For want of a nail, the kingdom can be lost” and all that.

Nevertheless, it isn’t the case that the potential uses (and therefore the potential benefits, costs, and harms) of “basic” research are completely unpredictable. Biologist and food activist Martha Crouch has demonstrated, for example, how particular kinds of agricultural research necessarily favor monoculture agribusiness over healthier alternatives. Indeed, in response to this insight, Crouch gave up her own laboratory research into the genetics of tomatoes because she had strong moral objections to the ways her research was being used in practice. She shifted to teaching about, thinking about, and working for local sustainable agriculture. What could Crouch’s work tell us about Murphy and White’s arguments? Well, I think it is safe to guess that research into improving the distribution of farming resources is more likely to feed the hungry than bioethical questioning of sperm harvesting.

But beyond the problem of implying that producing a whole bunch of nails will somehow build a kingdom, a more fundamental problem I see with Murphy and White’s reasoning is revealed in their article’s subtitle: “Are Bioethicists Studying the Right Stuff?” I think the question should be different, and bigger: Are bioethicists doing the right stuff? I want to argue that, where both gamete harvesting and world hunger are concerned, studying alone is inadequate. Indeed, I might argue that any topic worth studying in bioethics is worth also trying to do something more about. In short, the problem I have with much of academic bioethics – and with too much of academia – is the tendency to react to the news of crucifixions by declaring, “Right! This calls for immediate discussion!” and to pretty much leave it at that.

This habit constitutes a maddening kind of trick-or-treating. Ding-dong: we find a spooky new technology behind a neighbor’s door. The spirited discussion happens among the visitors on the porch, the papers are given at cushy conferences and published in insular journals, the funding comes and goes, lines are entered on CVs, and off we all go to ring the doorbell of the next topic of the week. To expand this metaphor, I’d answer Murphy and White’s argument that “These questions [about gamete harvesting] don’t stop at the door of the fertility clinics” with this: “They don’t even get in the door!” As is too often the case, the ethicists studying them have rung the doorbell, dropped their academic papers, and run away with their booty of professional candy.

What seems to me obscene is not just that there is so much scholarly attention to dead sperm donors while other people die of hunger, but the belief that somehow scholarly attention is all that is to be morally expected of the awakened mind. If postmortem gamete harvesting matters enough to study, might it not matter enough to try to have a real and true effect on the harvesting?

* * *

I had the exquisite pleasure recently of hearing a moral philosophy of activism from an academic much more radical than myself. In 2005 the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB, known affectionately as “ishkabibble”) hosted a plenary session on activism in academia. The speakers were Richard Levins of Harvard University, Brian Wynne of the University of Lancaster, and me. Professor Levins spoke autobiographically and passionately about using the findings of biology to enable people in the third world to live in ecological peace with their environments and to feed their own. He spoke of how he had learned from the farmers he sought to help by working side by side with them. “Food is not a philosophical problem for the hungry,” he asserted, and “scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.”

Now perhaps Murphy and White would in principle agree, and would note that the study of gamete harvesting seeks to address the potential suffering of those who might be born of such technology. Yet again, I would argue that merely studying the potential for suffering is morally inadequate. If food remains a philosophical problem for us scholars, we have done nothing to feed anyone. More problematically, what we have done is to metaphorically feed ourselves (with fascinating conversations, publications, and the like) off very real hunger.

I want to be clear: I’m not arguing that we should never profit from the work that we do, or that we should be miserable martyrs to the social good. Instead, I’m trying to argue that profiting without trying to do good for the people we’re profiting from is morally suspect.

Murphy and White tell us “political advocacy can be improved by thinking,” and with this, again, I think none of us Judiths would disagree. All three of us on the ISHPSSB plenary talked about how we had used our scholarship to develop, support, further, and refine political advocacy. So, in practice, is political advocacy improved by thinking? Yes, indeed. We’ve seen this, for example, in the interplay of disability studies and disability rights work. We’ve seen it in the agitation coming from university scholars for national health insurance.

Yet too often good thinking remains stuck in the ivory tower, when it could have a good effect. We cannot afford to fool ourselves into thinking that thinking about human suffering reduces it.

Now, when I talk about doing activism from an academic base, fellow academics (especially graduate students) sometimes ask me whether I’ve been criticized or even punished for doing activism. I tell them that, although I have been written off by a few academics and a few doctors as a crazy radical, in general I’ve been well supported by my institutions. Far from being punished, I’ve done fine. Yet the question about punishment comes up so often I think academics must have a palpable fear of being perceived as activists.

I’ve tried to think about where this stifling fear might be coming from, since it would be useful to dispel it and free the pockets of would-be Judiths I run into. No doubt part of it comes from a realistic reading of the reward system of academia, a system that is seemingly weighted ever more heavily towards grants and academic publications (especially publications that lead to grants). Scholars get the message it is not okay to “waste” one’s thinking time on doing; doing is for the blue-collars, or at best for the posttenure deadwoods.

Some fear may also originate from well-publicized cases of retaliation against activism academics; the name David Healy springs to mind here. Yet I think the pressure against activism is generally more pervasive and subtle. I notice that many scholars report getting the strange message that they can’t be “objective” if they become actively involved in the applications of their work. It is as if nonacademics carry some kind of objectivity-obliterating pathogen that can make us forget how to use PubMed and how to do statistics. Thinking about applications is somehow “dirty,” where esoteric ideas remain “pure.”

Depressingly, this privileging of “pure thinking” over doing goes back as far as academia does. I realized this reading David Noble’s excellent book, A World without Women, a text that helps to explain why so few women have been in the sciences. Noble begins with the common observation that universities grew out of monasteries, but then he goes further, examining in depth how the culture of Christian theology supported – indeed, required – an insular, esoteric, elitist cult of the mind. As academia grew slowly from monasticism, the mind was the ideal, and the mind was masculine. For centuries this correlation between the male/female and mind/body dichotomies kept most women out of the learned professions. Women were believed to be necessarily of the body, and so unable to lead the pure life of the disciplines. Think about the long-running orthodox Christian privileging of the immortal, the metaphysical, the spiritual, the untouchable over the sinful and transient body. Its no coincidence that, until quite recently in history, most professors had to take the clerical vows (including celibacy), and it remains no coincidence that our students still don monastic robes to signal commencement (although only us professors get the monks’ hoods).

I found out how persistent the academic devotion to intellectual purity really is when, two years ago, I redecorated my university office. I painted the walls red (yes, red), brought in some nice walnut and wicker furniture from home, accessorized with contrasting pillows and a valence to cover the institutional blinds, hung up good art, put down a funky rug, jazzed up my bookcases with fresh paint, built a storage unit with a very attractive modern ginkgo-leaf canvas screen, and topped it all off with great lighting from IKEA. It was stunning.

And oh, brother, so were the reactions. Paying this much attention to my bodily pleasure seemed to some of my colleagues to be the visual equivalent of having sex with a student on the floor. Some actually found themselves unable to walk in my door. They would stand in the hallway, look in, and stammer something about their latest publications. A few colleagues had the opposite reaction: They would shout “Wow!” walk right in, plop themselves on the wicker settee, put their feet up, and demand a cup of tea from my shiny new electric tea kettle. After a few weeks of this I realized I could predict who would do what: The “pure intellectual” types who thought of teaching (a bodily matter, I’ve realized) as a necessarily evil, whose self-worth depended on the length of their CVs, and who would never meet with a politician or a reporter – these types would be the ones out in the hallway. Breaking past the cognitive barrier were their academic opposites. I should publish a paper on how reaction to fine office décor is predictive of one’s engagement with nonacademics and how it also correlates with one’s undergraduate teaching evaluations.(1)

If I’m right about this – that part of the fear, misgivings, or abhorrence of activism among many academics stems from a culture that is now centuries old and lies very deep in the academic psyche – it’s going to be quite a challenge to redecorate the ivory tower and free the would-be Judiths. But I think that renovation would be worth doing – and not only because it might by association finally free us from some of the more stifling aspects of our mind-over-matter monastic history, like those that also make us feel we must deny our disabilities and our families. At the most obvious level, by more explicitly encouraging and rewarding active engagement outside of the academy, we could collectively do so much more good than we are doing now. We might help reduce unnecessary suffering in the world faster and better.

At the same time, we could show skeptics (including students, reporters, politicians, and taxpayers) one major value of intellectualism, of universities, and of scholars. This could lead to a renewed appreciation of intellectualism and an improved understanding of what marks the difference between political rant and critical thinking. We could stop complaining about how disengaged our undergraduate students are and start showing them by example why intellectual/social engagement is a better way of life. We could exercise more fully our academic freedom, staunching its atrophy and rebuilding the shared sense of learned purpose. Faculty at big universities might even show up for commencement. If all these carrots aren’t reason enough to act, let me suggest again, as I did at the beginning, a theological-sounding stick: surely we have a moral duty to do more than keep our thinking within the confines of the academy. Look around. Something is actually happening! Surely we have got to do more than write a paper about it.

(1) Alice Dreger, “Redecorating Your Ivory Tower: A Phenomenological Study of Posttenure Window Treatments,” forthcoming.

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