The importance of premises

In an interesting article in the Hastings Center Bioethics Forum, titled “Hannah Arendt in St. Peter’s Square,” Joseph Fins and Jenny Reardon write about the importance of deep ethical reflection in dealing with the ethical challenges of biomedical research. They point out that when ethics becomes a matter of simply following a set of rules we can end up in the wrong place. Even such fundamentally good concepts as informed consent and the need to have research proposals reviewed to be sure that they are ethically sound can lead to a mindset of regulatory compliance, essentially following the letter of the law, while leading to poor conclusions about what we ought to do. In the end they suggest that in order to facilitate deeper ethical thinking regarding new areas of biomedical research we need more interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences and engineering on one hand and the humanities and social sciences on the other. I think this is quite true and is a strong argument for a liberal education in its classic sense.

However, I find it particularly interesting how the thinking of Hannah Arendt enters into their discussion. Arendt was a German Jew who fled from Europe to the US in the Nazi era. She wrote about the kind of thinking that allowed the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin to gain control. Fins and Reardon focus on her idea that logical thinking can lead from a seemingly self-evident statement to a replacement of common sense with thinking that leads in a direction that is very wrong. They see a culture in medicine and science that considers ethics as a matter of regulatory compliance rather than deep reflection an example of this.

What I find most interesting in Arendt’s thinking is the idea that logic will lead to faulty conclusions if the premise is not true. The problem that she saw in the thinking leading to totalitarian regimes was not that the thinking was illogical. The problem was that the seemingly self-evident statements which were used as the premises were false. When we apply that to ethics it means that we will only reach sound ethical conclusions when we begin with moral premises that are true. A liberal education with interplay between the humanities and the sciences is one way to seek true premises for our ethical thinking in the wisdom that can be found in the interplay of academic disciplines. Another is to recognize that the existence of common sense morality suggests a source of moral wisdom that is beyond human wisdom. Christian ethics finds its premises in that higher source of moral wisdom. A Christian liberal education integrates them both.

Different answers to “Why?”

Sometimes when we ask “Why” we are really asking the mechanical or causation question: “How did something come to be?” In a billiards game, one might ask: “Why did the 8 ball go into the side pocket?” A valid answer might be: “It was struck by the 3 ball.” A reasonable follow-up question might be: “Why did the 3 ball strike the 8 ball?” Answer: “It was struck by the cue ball after a billiards player struck the cue ball with her stick.” These are correct mechanical explanations as to how the 8 ball came to go into the side pocket.

Sometimes when we ask “Why?” we are really asking: “For what purpose did something come to be?” In the previous billiards game, the answer to the question: “Why did the 8 ball go into the side pocket?” might be: “The player struck the cue ball which struck 3 ball which struck the 8 ball which went into to the side pocket so she could win the billiards game.” There was a purpose behind or beyond the physical or mechanistic description of the 8 ball falling into the side pocket.

Two opinion pieces asking “Why?” from medical and bioethical aspects were published within a week of one another and provide similar examples. The first was a NEJM Perspective by Anthony Breu entitled “Why is a Cow? Curiosity, Tweetorials, and the Return to Why” (subscription required). The second was by Stephen Phillips in this blog entitled “Why do we do this?”

In the first article, Dr. Breu begins with the classic infinite regression example of his 4-year old daughter asking “Why” to every response he provides to her previous “Why” question.

Daughter: “Why was [so-and-so] sleeping?”
Dr. Breu: “Because it was nighttime.”
Daughter: Why was it nighttime?”
Dr. Breu: “Because the earth rotates.”
Daughter: “Why does the earth rotate?”

Dr. Breu paused at this point because he did not immediately know why the earth rotated. He jokingly recalled that his own father terminated these inquisitions with: “Why is a cow?”, which Dr. Breu quickly learned meant the “Why Game” was over. The rest (and real emphasis) of the article discussed the benefits of encouraging medical curiosity in his students and the particular benefits of “Tweetorials”, Twitter posts that answer in-depth medical explanations of pathology. “Why does an acute hemorrhage cause anemia?” His Tweetorial provided a mechanistic answer to the question of why (or how) does anemia result from an acute hemorrhage.

Dr. Breu closes his article with the following answer to his daughter’s last question:

…the Earth rotates because of the angular momentum that resulted from asymmetrical gravitational accretion after the Big Bang. And if my daughter asks me “Why was there a Big Bang?,” I’ll be forced to reply, “Why is a cow?”

In the second article, Dr. Phillips answers the question: “Why do we do this?” by succinctly describing the purpose for which we Trinity Bioethics bloggers write the bioethics articles that we write. We believe there is purpose behind or beyond the human biology that we study determined by a loving God in whose image we are made. As such, our bioethical inquiries seek to understand whether the human purpose of a particular medical technology or procedure is complementary or contrary to God’s purpose. Why? As Dr. Phillips explained, because God loves us and has asked us to love our neighbor.

Maybe that is an answer to “Why was there a Big Bang?” (and “Why is a cow?”)

Why do we do this?

Many of the posts on this blog involve cautions that there are things in medicine which we are capable of doing and which some want to do that we should not do. Much of the time those cautions go unheeded by our society. For fifty years we have been saying that we should not perform abortions, but many unborn human beings continue to lose their lives. We give reasons why we should not do euthanasia, but PAS becomes legal in state after state. We write about why we should not alter the genes of human embryos, but the research continues. Is it just that we are anti-medical science and like telling people what they should do?

No. We do it out of love. Sometimes it is love and concern for people who are powerless and cannot speak for themselves. It is because of our love for the person who is aborted as a fetus or comes into being as the result of a genetic manufacturing project rather than being accepted unconditionally as a gift. It is out of love for the Canadian man who chooses euthanasia because he cannot obtain the 24 hour a day care he needs to live life with ALS.

It is also out of love for those who do things that are wrong. Love for the physician who performs abortions or euthanasia. Love for the researcher who uses human embryos as research subjects destined to die. We do it for the sake of the gospel which tells us that we have all done wrong and are destined for judgment unless someone intervenes. The gospel that tells us Jesus did intervene by his death and resurrection and has made forgiveness and restoration available to all who confess their wrongdoing and put our trust in him. We do it for those who will miss out on the amazing grace of the God who died for us if they listen to a culture that says that anything you desire to do is right and there is no need to ask for forgiveness for anything.

What Christian ethics is not

About this time in the semester, after discussing some basic things about the discipline of ethics and looking at some of the main ethical theories in western philosophical ethics, I begin a discussion of Christian ethics with the students in my bioethics class. I intend this to form a foundation on which they can ground their thinking about the issues in bioethics that we will discuss throughout the rest of the class. This year I decided to begin by talking about what Christian ethics is not, because we live in a world that has misunderstandings about many things including Christian ethics.

Here are the things that I have suggested to them that Christina ethics is not.

#1 It is not that we are better than they are (or that I am better than you are.)

Commonly when someone says that something is wrong, those who want to do it say that those who say it should not be done are trying to show that they are morally superior. I think this is a common motivation for making moral statements, but it should never be a part of Christian ethics. It contradicts what we, as Christians, believe. A fundamental part of the gospel is that we are all wrong. We are all sinful and in need of redemption. It is essential to our faith to believe that we are not better than anyone.

#2 It is not about what I think is right.

For those who believe in subjective relativism, ethics is truly about what I think is right. For the cultural relativist it is about what my group thinks is right. Even among many moral philosophers who believe in objective moral truth, whether they are Kantians or Utilitarians, ethics is about what I can determine to be right, based on my intellect and reason. From a biblical Christian viewpoint, it is what God thinks is right that is important. We are just trying to understand what he has revealed to us. None of us understands the mind of God completely. When we disagree, discussing why we think as we do can help us both get a better understanding of what God thinks about it.

#3 It is not about being good enough for heaven (or earning a relationship with God.)

Our society’s cultural religion says that as long as we do more good than bad, we can expect heaven as our reward. The Christian gospel says that our relationship with God and ultimate destiny are entirely dependent on Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is not about being good enough or doing more good than bad. So why do we care about ethics? Genesis says that we were created in the image of God. One of the things that means is that God intended to be a reflection of himself and his glory. Since God is a moral being who is good and we are sinful, we must be transformed to reflect God and bring glory to him.  Living morally upright lives through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as people who have been reborn through Jesus’ death and resurrection allows us to worship God by living lives that reflect his goodness. That is what Christian ethics is.

Men without chests

One thing that is essential for us to be able to think well about bioethics is an understanding of who we are as human beings. One aspect of that which has been discussed on this forum is the concept of human dignity, the idea that all human beings have inherent value which impacts how we interact with each other ethically. For Christians that is grounded in the idea that we are all created in the image of God. John Kilner has expressed so very well how our being created in the image of God is the reason why people matter.

C. S. Lewis wrote about another aspect of how we understand ourselves as human beings back in 1947 in a little book titled The Abolition of Man. The first chapter of that book is titled “Men without Chests.” As a medieval scholar he was using a medieval image to express a concern that he had about how the tendency to deny the existence of objective moral truth in his day was leading to a problem with how we function as human beings. In the image that he is using the head represents intellect or reason, the chest (or heart) represents sentiments or values, and the stomach represents the appetites or desires. He says that if we believe that statements about morality or values are simply statements about how we feel and are not statements that can be considered objectively true or false, then the chest has lost its ability to mediate between the head and the stomach. Without objective moral values humans become beings whose intellect is used to achieve their desires without any means of controlling those desires.

What Lewis predicted is where much of our society is today. We are told that our identity is based on our desires, and that if we do not fulfill our desires then we are denying who we really are. Anyone who would suggest that our desires might be wrong or that we should not fulfill those desires must hate us and is attacking us and making us unsafe. Our desires define who we are, and our intellect is given the task of fulfilling those desires.

This is in stark contrast with a Christian concept of who we are as human beings. We understand that as human beings we are created by God in his image and with a purpose. We also understand that we are fallen. This world is not how it ought to be and we are not how we ought to be. Because we are fallen, our desires are frequently wrong. Our identity is not found in our desires, but in our relationship with our creator. We understand that our creator has given us the capacity to understand which of our desires are right and which are wrong. He has enabled our intellect to comprehend objective moral values that are grounded in the goodness of God’s nature. Those moral concepts allow us to distinguish right from wrong desires. That is what ethics is about. Those moral concepts also help us understand that we fall short of what we ought to be. We need help. That is what the gospel is all about. That is why Jesus died and rose again as we just celebrated at Easter.

The idea that our desires define who we are and must be fulfilled creates men without chests who are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong and can only express how they feel about a moral issue. We must have chests which hold to objective moral truths to think ethically and be complete human beings who are not simply ruled by our appetites.

Are AI Ethics Unique to AI?

A recent article in Forbes.com by Cansu Canca entitled “A New Model for AI Ethics in R&D” has me wondering whether the ethics needed for the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) requires some new method or model of thinking about the bioethics related to that discipline. The author, a principal in the consulting company AI Ethics Lab, implies that there might be. She believes that the traditional “Ethics Oversight and Compliance Review Boards”, which emerged as a response to the biomedical scandals of World War II and continue in her view to emphasize a heavy-handed, top-down, authoritative control over ethical decisions in biomedical research, leave AI researchers effectively out-of-the-ethical-decision-making loop.

In support of her argument, she cites the recent working document of AI Ethics Guidelines by the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG). AI HLEG essentially distilled their AI ethical guidelines down to the familiar: Respect for Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-Maleficence, and Justice, as well as one new principle: Explicability. She downplays Explicability as simply the means to realize the other four principles. I think the demand for Explicability is interesting in its own right and will comment on that below.

Canca sees the AI HLEG guidelines as simply a rehash of the same principles of bioethics available to current bioethics review boards, which, in her view, are limited in that they provide no guidance for such a board when one principle conflicts with another. She is also frustrated that the ethical path researchers are permitted continues to be determined by an external governing board, implying that “researchers cannot be trusted and…focuses solely on blocking what the boards consider to be unethical.” She wants a more collaborative interaction between researchers and ethicists (and presumably a review board) and outlines how her company would go about achieving that end.

Faulting the “Principles of Biomedical Ethics” for failing to be determinant on how to resolve conflicts between the four principles is certainly not a problem unique to AI. In fact, Beauchamp and Childress repeatedly explicitly pointed out that the principles cannot be independently determinant on these types of inter-principle conflicts. This applies to every field in biomedical ethics.

Having an authoritative, separate ethical review board was indeed developed, at least in part, because at least some individual biomedical researchers in the past were untrustworthy. Some still are. We have no further to look than the recent Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who allegedly created and brought to term the first genetically edited twins. Even top-down, authoritative oversight failed here.

I do think Canca is correct in trying to educate both the researchers and their companies about bioethics in general and any specific bioethical issues involved in a particular research effort. Any effort to openly identify bioethical issues and frankly discuss potential bioethical conflicts at the outset should be encouraged.

Finally, the issue of Explicability related to AI has come up in this blog previously. Using the example of programming a driverless car, we want to know, explicitly, how the AI controlling that car is going to make decisions, particularly if it must decide how to steer the car in a no-win situation that will result in the death of either occupants inside the car or bystanders on the street. What we are really asking is: “What ethical parameters/decisions/guidelines were used by the programmers to decide who lives and who dies?” I imagine we want this spelled-out explicitly in AI because, by their nature, AI systems are so complex that the man on the Clapham omnibus (as well as the bioethicist sitting next to him) has no ability to determine these insights independently.

Come to think about it, Explicability should also be demanded in non-AI bioethical decision-making for much the same reason.

The new WHO advisory panel on human gene editing

By Jon Holmlund

The World Health Organization (WHO) has empaneled an expert advisory committee to propose standards for governance and oversight of human gene editing.

This group is to meet in Geneva on March 18 and 19 to review the state of the field, broadly, and formulate a plan for its work, over the ensuing 12-18 months.  Sounds like your basic organizational meeting. 

The WHO website does not specify a more detailed charge for the committee, which no doubt will determine its goals.  It is said to have been formed “after an open call for members,” implying, I suppose, that the members volunteered, as opposed to being invited or otherwise prevailed upon.

The co-chairs are Edwin Cameron, former Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, and Margaret Hamburg, who, among her other positions, was FDA Commissioner under Barack Obama.

A review of the full list of biographical sketches for the members shows that they are a truly international group, representing nations from the developed and developing world, and from all continents (except Antarctica, of course).  They are a mix of physicians, biologists, and ethicists.  None appears immediately recognizable from the recent media coverage of human gene editing.  If there are members with a specific interest in promoting technology, that is not obvious from the list, which WHO further says was limited to people screened carefully for conflicts of interest.

One can tell but little from such bio sketches, but in this case it at least appears that a broad range of cultural perspectives will be represented.

There is no clear representation for a theistic or religious perspective.  Also, because the work of such a group naturally draws and involves scientific specialists, the broader, non-scientific, “lay” public is not represented.

Past work by these members addressing gene editing will be of interest to review, which your present correspondent has not, yet.

One hopes that this group will offer wise counsel that, as discussed in prior posts to this blog and elsewhere, goes beyond the usual, limited “benefit-risk” estimates that characterize Western bioethics.

But it will unavoidably not constitute the broad, cosmopolitan, multinational and multiethnic, naturalistic and theistic dialogue that is hoped for—probably too much to hope for, too much to ask of a group of 18 people—in advance of broad adoption of heritable human gene editing, which appears inexorable.

Godspeed and best of success to this group—follow its work as closely as possible. ity51 \lsdl

Thanksgiving and ethics

By Steve Phillips

It is good at times for us to stop and think about why we do the things that we do and what they mean. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that our society enthusiastically celebrates with lots of food, the gathering of families, and sporting events, followed by intense shopping. Historically Thanksgiving in America began with a group of Christians expressing their gratitude to God for what he had done for them. Christians continue to see this holiday as one during which we pause to remember what God has done for us and take time to express our thanks to him.

However, many in our society no longer believe in a personal God to whom gratitude is due. What does it mean to celebrate Thanksgiving if a person believes that those things that they are pleased to have are theirs due to a combination of chance and their own effort? Or if in our entitlement culture they believe that all that they have are things that they deserve. If that is the case, there is no reason for giving thanks and no one to whom thanks can be given. Instead of being a time of actually giving thanks to the one who has graciously given good gifts to us, the holiday has become a celebration of affluence and good fortune. Sporting events and shopping fit that very well.

How does this relate to ethics? The two different meanings of Thanksgiving correspond with two different ways of thinking about how we ought to live. For those of us who see Thanksgiving as a time to remember that the good things that we have come from God, it also reminds us that we are created beings who are made by and dependent on the God who has given us the things that we are thankful for. Remembering this helps us realize that God is the source of all that is good and that our understanding of what is right and how we ought to live comes from him as well. The alternative meaning of the Thanksgiving celebration is self-focused. If there is no God to be thankful to, the celebration is about the fulfillment of personal desires. That correlates with the ethics of moral individualism in which moral values are based on how a person feels and focused on fulfillment of personal desires.

Whether we see Thanksgiving Day is a time to actually give thanks to the God who is the giver of all good things or not makes a big difference in how we think about ethics.

Starting with moral conclusions vs. foundational principles

By Steve Phillips

Last week I wrote about how Jeremy Williams’ moral position on sex-selection abortion was influenced by his position on abortion itself. Reflecting a little more on what he wrote raises the question of what comes first in our reasoning about a moral issue. Do we start with fundamental principles or with previously held moral conclusions? It is not a simple question.

Abortion is such a significant issue that it tends to dominate bioethics at times. Ethicists who defended the permissibility of a woman choosing abortion in the 1970s seemed to begin with the idea that abortion was permissible and then work back to reasons to support that position. Those reasons included an analogy of a violinist being attached to a person without her permission and the idea that some human beings were not actually persons. However, this process of starting with a conclusion is not exclusive to those who support abortion. Many of my students begin with a strongly ingrained belief that abortion is wrong without a good understand of why they believe that. They then address other issues according to how that would affect their belief that abortion is wrong.

My first reaction is that proper moral reasoning should begin with foundational moral principles, but those who take the casuist approach to ethics say that rigidly following principles can lead us astray. They say we should we should begin with a paradigm case in which the moral conclusion is clear and then determine how much the situation we are considering is like and unlike the paradigm case. Even Beauchamp and Childress who have helped to define the principles of biomedical ethics say that those principles are in a significant way influenced by our considered moral judgments and not just based on ethical theories.

So why do I think we should start with foundational principles? That goes back to why I think there is such a thing as moral right and wrong. I believe that morality itself exists because we were created by and live in a world created by a moral being who is by nature good. God’s innate goodness causes ethics to exist. If we were the result of chance and unguided evolution, we would have no reason to believe that such things as right and wrong exist. If ethics exists due to the moral character of God, then God’s moral qualities are the foundation of ethics. His expression of those qualities in scripture and through his incarnate Son form the foundational principles for ethics. That is where we need to start.

Human limitation and ethics

By Steve Phillips

I recently read Cody Chambers’ article “The Concept of Limitation in Emil Brunner’s Ethics” in Ethics in Conversation from the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. The article is well done and you need to read it to get the full impact of what he has said. What resonated with me was the idea that being limited is a part of what it means to be human and that our limitations are essential for our relationship with God and each other. It is our limitedness that helps us see that we need both God and other people and that we were made for those relationships. This is central to ethics because it is in our relationships with God and other people that we find our understanding of what ethics is.

This understanding that we are in our nature limited beings created by an unlimited God could not be more different from the conception of human beings held by many in the culture around us. They desire to see human beings and particularly themselves as having unlimited potential and freedom with no creator at all. That desire for personal freedom dominates contemporary ethics and shows itself in all areas of bioethics.

Chambers looks at how this impacts thinking about gene editing. Those who advocate doing human germline genetic modification see it as the freedom to create a child who is made to be what the parents creating the child desire the child to be. This is usually expressed in terms of creating a child free from genetic disease, but there are simpler ways to have a child without a disease carried by the parents (including adoption). It is ultimately the desire to be free of natural human reproductive limitations and create a child we have designed and chosen. Being limited helps us to see that we need each other and must respect others, including our children, as they have been made by God. Our natural lack of control over the characteristics of our children leads to an understanding that those children are a gift from God that we should accept unconditionally. Using technology to try to take control of the creation of our children leads to creating children that will fulfill our desires and a loss of the unconditional acceptance that is the foundation of a positive parent-child relationship.

Freedom in the proper context is good. The desire for unlimited freedom leads to putting ourselves above others and ultimately controlling and subjugating others, including our children, to our desires. Proper ethics requires an understanding that our freedom is limited.