Applied Philosopher: Bioethicist and historian of science Jonathan Moreno

Even for someone in bioethics, a discipline that has lately begun grappling with the kinds of quandaries once confined to science-fiction plots, Jonathan Moreno attracts more than his fair share of left-field queries.

“Almost every day, I get an e-mail or a call from somebody who is sure that their brain is being controlled by the CIA,” he says. “And very smart people, too.” Most recently it was a Californian who identified himself as a practicing neurologist. But if the past couple years are any guide, that caller won’t be the last.

Ever since Moreno investigated the intersection of neuroscience and warfare in his 2006 book Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists have been wearing out the ringer on his phone. The former hospital ethicist doesn’t count himself as one of them, but he knows enough not to discount the concerns that underlie their fears.

“The big turning point for me was in the mid ’90s, when I was asked to work for a presidential advisory committee on decades of rumors of human radiation experiments done secretly by the federal government. So for a year and a half, I worked with a security clearance.” That’s when Moreno saw that bioethics had a public-policy dimension every bit as important as its clinical one. “Most people in bioethics,” he says, “don’t think about the Defense Department, or the Department of Energy, or the CIA and other parts of the intelligence community. But I saw that that was a mistake. I realized that there’s a huge, uncharted history of ethics in medicine in the national-security world.”

As a David and Lyn Silfen University Professor with appointments in the College’s department of history and sociology of science as well as the medical school, where he is a professor of medical ethics, Moreno has the intellectual space to delve into such under-explored realms.


Before coming to Penn, Moreno taught biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia. “I was perfectly happy in Charlottesville, but I always felt a little odd about putting so much of an emphasis on history and political considerations,” he says. “Yet I thought it was absolutely necessary to do that. So what attracted me to this job was being able to get the license to do both—history of science and bioethics was the perfect combination.”

Yet like many of his colleagues at Penn’s Center for Bioethics, where he is a senior fellow, Moreno also has one eye trained on the future. The developments he explored in Mind Wars—the $100 million in grants being spent with the aim of creating “sleepless soldiers,” for instance, or the push to augment the memories of fighter pilots with microchips—have the potential to change civilian life no less radically than military practice.

“Deliberate personal enhancement using biotechnology, neurotechnology, genetics, neuropharmacology—this is all going to be part of the biggest question of the 21st century,” he says. “What is it to be a human being? That’s what’s at stake. And how much control ought we to exercise over what it is to be a human being?”

Part of what distinguishes Moreno’s approach to these questions is an academic background marked by a frank lack of interest in ethical theory. As a graduate student in philosophy in the mid 1970s, Moreno saw ethics as an “intellectual dead end,” or worse, “a vast wasteland.”

“Much of my generation saw little point in worrying about moral theory when other young Americans and Vietnamese peasants of all ages were being killed and maimed without any sound explanation,” he has written. “As the country was being torn apart by an actual moral crisis, analytic philosophy seemed to offer at best a witty parlor game.”

Bioethics was a different story, especially for someone who wanted to become a public intellectual at a time when public intellectuals seemed to be vanishing from view. A philosophical pragmatist in the mold of John Dewey, Moreno was attracted to a discipline that dealt in the currency of real-life conundrums. And the medical community, which was then confronting challenges ranging from rising litigation to the advent of HMOs, had plenty of them.

“They were looking for help in unusual places, including even philosophers,” Moreno quips. “At eight in the morning as a junior professor, I’d go teach introductory philosophy and the kids would be falling asleep. Then later that day I’d go over to the medical school and the docs would be hanging on every word. It was totally bizarre. So it was obviously a real forum for philosophical ideas.”

Over the next quarter century, that forum grew far beyond anyone’s expectations. Advances in genetics and neurobiology are now starting to exert revolutionary pressures on the traditional model of medical care—turning bioethics into an increasingly political endeavor. From stem-cell research to the social-justice implications of “personalized medicine,” contemporary topics in bioethics are deeply enmeshed with debates about public policy. How aggressively should we pursue medical technologies that aim to enhance people who are already healthy? In a world of limited resources, is it appropriate to spend healthcare dollars on things like silicon-based brain enhancement when millions of citizens can’t afford basic primary care?

On one side of this debate over human enhancement are the so-called “transhumanists,” who essentially advocate using biotechnology to transform the evolution of the species into a self-directed endeavor. Opposite them are the “bio-conservatives,” whose voices have dominated the current President’s Council on Bioethics, and whose opposition to stem-cell and cloning research is rooted in the abstract notion of preserving human dignity.

Moreno sees himself somewhere in the middle—an intellectual space he is trying to expand as the editor-in-chief of Science Progress, an online publication launched last year by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank with a moderately left-leaning bent. “One common criticism of progressive science policy is that it uncritically adopts an instrumental view of science without reflection on the goals of innovation,” he wrote in his inaugural editor’s statement. “Although we reject the notion that a philosophy of innovation must be dumb to moral values, we appreciate that progressives have too often appeared to worship at the altar of change. Science Progress will therefore seek to compass consideration of ends as well as means.”

More broadly, Moreno’s mission is to wrest science policy out of the realm of ideological abstraction and bring it back to pragmatic concerns.

“We make a big mistake when we don’t take people’s ability to entertain real cases seriously,” he explains. For instance, when Republican presidential candidates were asked in a 2007 debate to raise their hands if they didn’t “believe in evolution,” part of the problem was the question itself. It would have been better, Moreno says, to ask them if they believed in getting the latest flu vaccination—which changes every year to keep pace with the mutating virus.

“If you’ve got an old parent who’s at risk for flu, do you say, I don’t believe in evolution and therefore I’m not going to take dad to have his flu shot? I don’t think so,” he says. “It’s only when we’re in these abstract or posturing situations—like candidates raising their hands—that we lose sight of the concrete … So I think it’s very important to translate these sorts of moral questions into actual cases and findings and consequences.”

Indeed, whether the field of inquiry is national defense or genetic engineering or science education, Moreno insists that concrete cases are what shape our moral imagination to begin with. He rejects the proposition that values are somehow disconnected from circumstance, and that ethical decision-making is just a matter of applying yesterday’s codes to today’s realities. “I think that we learn about the moral life by experiencing, by trying things out,” he says. “So through experience you have these emergent properties, including values. And as the facts on the ground change—as the cliché goes these days—our values actually change. That’s why we’ve been so successful as a species, because we’ve been responsive to that.

“But it’s not written in stone that we’ll continue to be so successful,” he adds, “unless we retain a level of openness to what’s happening around us.”

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