A letter from a reader: Science, art, and ethical questions

March 19, 2008:

Professor Lee Silver is well known for claiming that human embryos are something other than human beings at an early developmental stage, and therefore rightly may be subjected to lethal experimentation. He claims that science tells us that the living human embryo has no greater moral worth than a skin cell, mole, or tumor. Given this view of his, several important questions are raised by the PAW story ("Joining science and art," Books and Arts, Oct. 10) about how he reacted with apparent shock to a student's proposal to impregnate herself with chimp sperm and abort the embryo conceived as part of a scientific experiment under his supervision.

If Professor Silver has no ethical problem with killing a human embryo, why was he rendered "speechless" by his student's proposal to create and kill an embryo possessing even less claim to human status than a fully human embryo? Why would he think the subject worthy of writing a play about? Why would he see the matter as raising difficult moral questions that the play invites the viewer or reader to wrestle with?

Given Silver's premises, if such an experiment could advance scientific knowledge, why should it not proceed boldly?

Indeed, in light of Silver's reinvention of himself as teacher of ethics at Princeton (he began as a molecular biologist), it would be good to know what he regards as the basis of sound ethical judgment.

What can make a scientific experiment morally wrong, even though it is done in the pursuit of knowledge? Is the standard provided by divine revelation? Natural law? A utilitarian calculus? Science itself? Or does Silver hold that "right" and "wrong" are simply subjective beliefs with no real claim to the status of truth?

Furthermore, we might inquire of Professor Silver, what it is about human beings that makes it wrong to harm them (even if they are physically frail or mentally retarded) in the pursuit of scientific knowledge? Why may we not do to human beings what scientists at Princeton and elsewhere regularly do to nonhuman animals in trying to advance knowledge and develop therapies and cures? Is it that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God? Or is it Silver's view that human beings have no special dignity, and that the belief that they do have special dignity is a myth?

Washington, D.C.

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