Eric Cohen, Executive Director of the Tikvah Fund and editor-at-large of the New Atlantis, recently drew quite a crowd to Eastern University with his lecture “Science, Technology and the Common Good”. In his speech, Cohen sought to raise awareness of growing societal issues involving science and technology and also to turn his listeners’ minds towards the often-forgotten realm of ethics
In Cohen’s mind, there are legions of ethical-scientific issues to be addressed, but two are especially relevant: firstly, the growing prevalence of embryonic stem cell research, and secondly the ever-developing nuclear Iran.
Embryos, said Cohen, are becoming more of a pressing subject every day. There are hundreds of thousands of fertilized human eggs in freezers, and the scientific community simply cannot agree on what to do with them. On the one hand, the embryos could be used for research purposes. On the other hand, many consider the frozen embryos as full human persons because of their fertilization and complete genetic codes. As using the embryos for research would mean killing them, one has to wonder whether such a course of action could be morally licit.
Iran, longtime political enemy of Israel, climbs ever closer to nuclear functionality, causing increased anxiety amongst hereditary Jews. In Cohen’s mind–a hereditary jew himself–it is inevitable that nuclear weapons are just on the horizon. The question then, is what America ought to do. On the one hand, a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear research facilities is sure to prevent a future arms crisis. On the other hand, the moral status of such an action is questionable, especially considering the certainty of civilian casualties.
In the end, Cohen made his stance on the pro-preemptive strike and against embryonic research. Several ethical concepts were discussed, especially the “Principle of Double-Effect,” but in the end, the most important question for Cohen was “what kind of people do we want to be?” To him, a society has a duty to pursue the “Common Good,” and societal pursuit of the “Common Good” requires the highest prevention of violence possible and also the cultivation of moral excellence in citizens. Thus the rejection of embryonic research and the sad necessity of a preemptive strike. As Cohen provocatively put it, “sometimes we are morally required to perform immoral actions.”
The lecture was followed by thought provoking questions and lingering conversation, leaving all in the venue in thought. Some agreed with Cohen, some disagreed, and some found themselves somewhere in the middle. All, however, were in agreement that the topic is rather difficult, and we all need to humbly remain in the conversation. Cohen’s words were sure to stick in the minds of the audience: “science cannot teach us how to live well in an age of technology.” For that, “we need people who respect, but do not worship, the altar of the lab.”