WASHINGTON, May 30 (UPI) -- The editors of a new quarterly hope to challenge policymakers who know too little about science and scientists who don't give sufficient consideration to the moral dimensions of their work.
"We want to get the best minds thinking about the bigger questions," Eric Cohen told United Press International. Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis, a journal published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think take that studies the interconnections between religious faith, political practice and social values.
"We conceive of the journal as making people who are euphoric about technology a little more sober, and make people who are overly frightened about technology a little more hopeful," Cohen said.
Cohen said The New Atlantis is an effort to clarify America's moral and political understanding of all areas of technology -– from stem cells to hydrogen cells to weapons of mass destruction -– while taking seriously the deeper questions of human nature.
Bioethics will be a special focus. Traditional bioethics, Cohen said, has often been too distant from everyday politics.
Cohen said the political and ethical challenge of the moment is to make the case for a technological society in parts of the world that often resent it, an effort "that's intimately connected to our fight for democracy and the war on terrorism," and in the United States reining in some of the excesses of science that risks dehumanizing people.
He spoke of two sets of fears. One is of "a Prozac society" in which everyone is on a mood-altering drug, not aspiring to or worrying about much. "Then there's the technological nightmare."
These technology debates will shape American culture and politics in the years ahead, he told UPI.
The small-circulation journal targets "people who matter most," Cohen said. "Our hope is that we can have a readership among policymakers, bioethicists, intellectuals, scientists and leading figures in the biomedical community."
Of course, this is not the first time people have been concerned about the moral dimensions of scientific progress. The quarterly gets its name from the title Francis Bacon gave in 1627 to his fable of a society living with the benefits and challenges of advanced science and technology.
In 1818 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published "Frankenstein," about an ambitious young scientist who creates life but rejects his monstrous creation.
Genetic engineering, mind control and euphoric drugs are cornerstones of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (1932), a book contributors to the journal's inaugural issue cite often.
The magazine has two basic sections. The first is a series of essays and in-depth reports. The second is a set of shorter articles that provides brief commentary on the major scientific advances and political debates as they happen.
The spring 2003 issue features Leon R. Kass on biotechnology and the pursuit of ageless bodies and happy souls; Victor Davis Hanson on military technology, the American character and the U.S. role in the world; Christine Rosen on the uses and dangers of genetic fingerprints; Gilbert Meilaender on mortality, freedom, suffering and the relation between the generations; Scott Gottlieb on how the marriage of biology and silicon is transforming medicine; Charles T. Rubin on artificial intelligence and human nature; Paul A. Lawler on the rise and fall of Sociobiology; and an interview with "cybersecurity czar" Howard A. Schmidt.
Of particular interest to a cultural anthropologist is Yuval Levin's "The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics," which is about taboos, democracy and the politics of biology.
I'm fortunate that my anthropological mentor, Marvin Harris (1927-2001), developed a coherent, testable theory on the origin of taboos. Harris said taboos arise when the temptation to do something and the gratification gained in doing it are immediate and obvious, while the costs –- which can be enormous -- are veiled and delayed. The incest taboo, in its many manifestations, is the obvious example.
Levin writes that transgressing a taboo profanes the highest and most sacred things. "It marks a barrier whose violation would strike so deep that we would not have the words to describe it. ... We have a sense that deep wisdom is embedded in the prohibition, but that it is better not to unravel it in public."
Yet political contention in democracies requires that you state reasons for your positions. Appeals to self-evidence are insufficient.
Levin points out that until very recently, interracial marriage "turned the stomachs of many in white America," but that gut reaction could not stand up to scrutiny and should not have been allowed to determine government policy.
"Even if we all agreed that a particular taboo or deep repugnance is legitimate and should be heeded," Levin writes, "we must still establish a specific policy for doing so, and this still leaves us to argue over the details."
The problem is that the very act of explaining the utility of taboos exposes them in ways that undercuts them. The prohibition is cheapened by constant handling.
More important, "by transforming a deep moral sentiment into an argument, we abandon and likely lose forever its power as a sentiment. ... Each of our premises –- even if they are correct -– can be undermined by extreme cases or clever manipulations or sheer sophistry, and in the end the subject of our earlier shared repugnance becomes just another controversy about which differences exist and reasonable people disagree."
Levin used as an example the Supreme Court's decision last year in the case of Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, in which the court "spent pages upon pages trying to articulate an opposition to child pornography and in the end concluded that it might not be so bad if the pornography is computer --generated or if the actors are only pretending to be children."
Another example is Americans' abhorrence of cloning children, a revulsion shared by the secular as well as the religious. "But opponents of cloning have tied themselves to specific concrete arguments which, if they are swept away, can no longer so easily lean on a deep and commonly shared moral taboo."
The very fact that something becomes open to dispute –- its pros and cons weighed and tallied -- subverts the prohibition. This affects not only public policy but private ethical judgments.
Yet science, like politics, works by bringing things to light. A conservative bioethics, therefore, "is forced to proceed by pulling up its own roots and to begin by violating some of the very principles it seeks to defend."
Still, in a democratic society, Levin finds no alternative to more and better argument.
While taboos may lose their force, "the arguments crafted to replace them will still appeal to many people whose own souls have not lost the ability to feel an inarticulable awe," he predicted.