Who calls the shots—science or society?

Date published: 2006-04-27 10:26:24 AM

Think of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein or Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove: for at least two hundred years, artists and thinkers have warned about the drastic consequences of applying scientific knowledge unchecked by ethical wisdom.

We find the same cautionary spirit in the work of Margaret Somerville, founding director of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, who explains the dangers of scientific progress "without the moral and ethical progress that must accompany it."

Science thrives on the spirit of discovery, but in and of itself, it is fundamentally amoral: if it is possible to clone humans, treat medical conditions with transplanted animal genes or custom engineer our children, someone will keep trying until he or she manages to do it. How do we—as individuals, communities, nations—respond?

According to Somerville, an international authority on the ethical and moral implications of contemporary medical science, many of our current ethical dilemmas arise because of the gap between "science time" and "ethics time." In short, technical knowledge advances faster than moral and social understanding.

Scientific knowledge depends upon progress in a range of technical disciplines. The ethical understanding of that knowledge depends on analyzing its implications for a host of interrelated social, political, legal, religious and cultural domains. However complex the human genome and however brilliant the achievement in mapping it, equally or more complex are the moral and ethical implications of our growing power to manipulate the very basis of life.

Too often, technology is applied for the same reason that Sir Edmund Hillary claimed he climbed Mount Everest: "Because it is there." Somerville argues that society must first decide whether something is inherently wrong, and if so, the fact that we are able to do it should not matter. In this analysis, the fact that 90 per cent of Canadians oppose reproductive cloning means that we shouldn't permit it: the scientist must respect shared ethical values as much as anyone else. Science must serve the values we hold dear, not the reverse.

A further complicating factor, Somerville points out, is that our society's emphasis on individual rights and freedoms has led to a "moral individualism" that makes arriving at an ethical consensus a delicate balancing act. Yet "we can't form a society unless we agree on some basic values."

Margaret Somerville is a professor of law and medicine at McGill University in Montréal. She is widely published and has addressed numerous international conferences on ethical and legal aspects of science and society. Her most recent books are The Ethical Canary and Death Talk. Somerville received two SSHRC grants early in her career.