Monday, June 16, 2008

Unnatural Selection: Chapter 9

The quote opening this chapter, by Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, captures the theme particularly well; before I reminded myself that this was in a book about biomedical ethics, the phrase "original sin" leaped instantly to mind:
The first step to being moral is to realize how thoroughly we aren't.
Wingerson subtly reminds us of our own shortcomings (read SIN) from this quote onward; I saw several allusions to the plank-in-your-own-eye teaching. To wit:
...[A]nswers [to the questions of what exact moral rules the Nazi doctors broke] do exist, but many people, especially specialists in genetics, don't like to look too closely at them. The answers tend to lead to a mirror.
The Nuremberg principles themselves resemble the Ten Commandments, only reformulated specifically for biomedical ethics. They include informed consent without any coercion, an exhortation to use animals or some other means besides humans unless absolutely necessary, minimization of suffering, having risks be at most equal to benefits, and the ability of both researchers and subjects to end the experiment for a broad range of reasons.

Another quote, on examining what made the Nazi doctors do what they did (emphasis in original):
The discomfiting question "How could they have done it?" evokes an even more unpleasant one: "Could we do it?"
Further on, in a discussion criticizing "the skewed logic of popular eugenics," is a telling statement that could apply to, among other things, embryonic stem cell research (emphasis in original):
...But this argument [one of the logical flaws] implies that if your science is valid, it is impossible to be immoral - just as some defendants at Nuremberg argued that their only obligation was to carry out the experiments competently. It does not address the question of whether eugenic efforts backed by valid science ought to be considered worthwhile.
Finally, Wingerson talks briefly about the Tuskegee syphilis study, "a violation of the Nuremberg Code" (to understate) that took place between 1932 and 1972. Tacked on is a mention of another "of numerous examples" of violations: that "the U.S. Army [in the'50s and '60s] quietly released a chemical [zinc cadmium sulfide] into the air over cities and rural areas of the United States and order to test the possible dispersion of biological weapons." Where is that in the history books?

On page 171, less related to the plank-eye motif, is a connection I can't resist, and with which I will leave you (emphasis mine):
[Psychiatrist Robert Jay] Lifton himself, however, did make an evaluation: that Nazi philosophy destroyed the boundaries between healing and killing, that it erased commonly accepted principles of medical ethics and replaced them (often forcibly, using law and police power) with a whole new philosophy of public health. The philosophy meshed perfectly with certain principles of science that had been gaining in popularity for many years, most notably natural selection and survival of the fittest. National Socialism, said Nazi party leader Rudolf Hess at a mass meeting in 1934, "is nothing but applied biology."

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