04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hey Mr. Bioethicist, Scientists are Not Amoral

Yuval Levin, former Executive Director of the President's Council on Bioethics, has an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post arguing that Obama's new stem cell policy is dangerous. Levin does not argue that stem cell research is bad. Rather he is upset that Obama did not dictate which uses of stem cells are appropriate, but rather asked the National Institutes of Health to draft a policy on which uses of stem cells are appropriate:

It [Obama's policy] argues not for an ethical judgment regarding the moral worth of human embryos but, rather, that no ethical judgment is called for: that it is all a matter of science.

This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Science policy questions do
often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Lost in this superficially unobjectionable - if banal - assertion of the complexity of ethical issues involving science is Levin's (and many other bioethicists) credo: that the moral complexity of scientific issues means that scientists should not make decisions about them.

This conflation of science and scientists is offensive and ignorant. In my experience, no one has thought about the moral side of scientific issues more deeply than scientists. While bioethicists like Levin prattle on, reminding us that there are difficult decisions to be made in science, scientists have to grapple constantly with the difficult moral dilemmas that arise from our research.

Scientists are eager to make sure that the technologies we develop are used appropriately and deployed for the common good. And it is precisely the understanding of the subtle details of technology, and the creativity to see not only the obvious questions new technologies present, but the ones that may arises as the technology develops, that give scientists a unique perspective on their morally appropriate use.

This is not to say that all scientists would make the right moral decision or that the public will necessarily agree with the scientific community on what is right. This is why whatever policy the NIH arrives at should and will be subject to public scrutiny. But it is important for the public to understand that the decision the NIH makes will undoubtedly be based on moral principles.

Levin does not understand this. He views scientists merely as technical advisors. But fortunately the president disagrees. Obama decided to leave the decision on stem cell research to the NIH not because he felt that this called for a technical decision, but rather because he trusts scientists to make the right moral one.