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Hippocrates & Co.

by Rick Lewis

Medical ethics must be an eventful area in which to work. New technological breakthroughs and discoveries seem to appear almost hourly to present new dilemmas for doctors, nurses and researchers, as well as for the innumerable hospital ethics committees and government panels which advise them. The most colourful examples involve genetic experimentation on foetuses, cloning, test-tube babies, or other techniques undreamed of by Hippocrates. But working doctors are more likely to be worried by older, less glamourous dilemmas involving healthcare rationing (with new medical procedures or drugs costing a fortune, they can’t always be supplied to all who need them), euthanasia, or abortion.

Journalists often seem to have a rather hazy idea of medical ethics. Whenever some new medical technique is announced, or some innovation in genetic engineering, they automatically start typing “In a development with profound ethical implications…” On most newsroom computers the phrase can probably be summoned up with a single keystroke. Generally speaking, the report which follows says nothing whatever about the nature of those ethical implications.

Therefore, in this issue we take a long cool look at the kind of theorizing done in medical ethics. We are very pleased to include an interview with one of the world’s leading philosophers in this field, Professor Jonathan Glover, and an original article on the rights and wrongs of a technique (called PGD) which allows parents to select, supermarket style, their offsprings’ characteristics.

Philosophy really does deal sometimes with questions of life and death, and this is clearly the case in medical ethics – Jonathan Glover’s most famous book is called Causing Death and Saving Lives – but what about artificial intelligence? Is it about life or not? The world’s best known philosophical advocate of AI is undoubtedly Professor Daniel Dennett. So, naturally, we are rather chuffed to have an interview with him too. We also have an original article on one of the most famous objections to the idea of artificial intelligence, namely Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment.

If Dennett and his colleagues succeed in their project to create an intelligent robot, will they have created life, in the sense of the word that matters? Will they be beaten to it by those researchers who even now are experimenting on the cloning of human beings? Should all the philosophers, cognitive scientists and genetic engineers be sat down and forced to write out one thousand times “I shall not play in God’s domain”? Or do they deserve the support and admiration of a world seeking flexible solutions to fast-changing problems?

In one way at least, genetic engineering may narrow down theose solutions. By allowing us to select our children’s height, intelligence, health and so forth, it may lead to a great reduction in the diversity of future generations, down to a core seen as ideal babies. If this is so, it could be to the longterm detriment of humanity as the increasing homogeneity of the gene-pool might lead to a reduction in humanity’s ability to respond to as yet unforeseen challenges in the future.

A celebration of diversity – in philosophy rather than genes – took place in Boston, with the 20th World Congress of Philosophy. The congress organisers made a great effort to include representatives of all the world’s philosophical traditions – Chinese, Indican and African as well as the more familiar Anglo-American and Continental. Again, diversity is surely a good thing if it increases our capacity to respond imaginatively to questions so baffling that they are still being discussed thousands of years after first being posed. In addition, in an increasingly small world, understanding the philosophical traditions of other cultures must be a necessity for harmonious co-existence. We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed assembling it.

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