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The Hastings Center Looks Forward to the Obama Era

The Hastings Center staff gathered together in the Robert S. Morison Library on January 20 to watch together the auspicious inauguration of America’s first black president. With Americans—and people—everywhere, we affirm the significance of this event in our nation’s history. Ethics, which precludes discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and skin color, is the core of our work—but it is not every day we get to see it in action on an historical scale.

The Hastings Center welcomes the opportunities and challenges a new administration brings to bioethics. We were heartened to hear the president say in his inaugural address, “We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality…and lower its costs.” Hastings Center scholars share these goals, but also know that new technologies and new costs raise familiar ethical issues around fairness, knowledge, privacy, safety.

So, we were also encouraged to hear Mr. Obama recognize the fundamental values that must accompany change, saying, “Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism–these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility–a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.”

Fairness, tolerance, curiosity, responsibility—these are long-honored values in bioethics. (Indeed, the Center has embarked on a project called “Connecting American Values with American Health Care Reform” precisely to elevate the role of values in public debate.) We look forward to working with the Obama administration, as well as the new Congress, as those values are tested against the hard edges of our time. We encourage you to visit over the next few days, to see what Hastings Center scholars look for from the Obama administration on bioethical issues. –Mary Crowley, Director of Public Affairs and Communications

From Gregory E. Kaebnick, Ph.D., Editor, Hastings Center Report, Editor, Bioethics Forum, Associate for Philosophical Studies: I’m hoping that the stimulus package is not all roads and bridges, in spite of the fact that I was struck with the realization, when I last flew into Newark Airport, that our roads and bridges are in really bad shape compared to those of many other developed countries. Our current environmental problems are partly a function of how car-oriented our culture is, and our culture is car-oriented because we’ve been incrementally building, for many decades, a transportation system that not only encourages driving but also, over time, has made it all but impossible not to rely on cars. Frost wrote that “way leads on to way”; similarly, road leads on to road—an instance of the phenomenon that sociologists call “path dependency.” The stimulus package should include measures that put us on a path toward environmentally friendlier practices.

From Erik Parens, Ph.D., Senior Research Scholar: Not unlike our country’s broader political debates, some of our bioethical debates have become increasingly tendentious over the last several years. Perhaps nowhere has this been clearer than in the context of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. To listen to some of us on the political left, one might think that the physical health of the republic depended on ESC research moving forward. To listen to some on the political right, one might think that the moral health of the republic depended on stopping it.

When, in the future, President Obama speaks about science and technology, I hope he will listen to his better angels, who urge him to refuse overblown, ossified positions. Those angels usually remind him that his view isn’t the only one, that his rivals just might have an insight. But given how entrenched some of our debates about science and technology have become, that won’t be easy. His worse angels will be clamoring for distortion and simplification.

A central aim of bioethics has traditionally been to ask questions about how to best balance competing values in the conduct of science and in the use of technology. Two of bioethics’ forefathers were theologians, who held deeply different attitudes toward science and technology. One, Paul Ramsey, thought our foremost duty was to protect ourselves against the moral dangers that would attend a too fervent embrace of science and technology. The other, Joseph Fletcher, thought it was our foremost duty to use science and technology to reduce suffering and improve our physical health. Both men could appeal to the same religious tradition, and each had a different ethical insight on his side. At its best, bioethics has refused to choose just one of those two attitudes, and has sought instead to balance them.

Again, notwithstanding the considerable enthusiasm President Obama has expressed for science and technology in his inaugural speech, I hope he will heed the urgings of his better angels. If he does, maybe we in bioethics can get better at listening to ours, too.

Published on: January 23, 2009
Published in: Health Care Reform & Policy

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