Toward an International Ethic of Science

"If man should achieve total dominion over this planet and its inhabitants, even over evolution and physical life, so that by transplanting organs, heart, lungs, liver, hands, heads -- a certain man or woman could “live forever”, would that person then be perfectly happy? Would he or she be a worker, or a monarch, or a slave, trapped forever in nothing but human life, with no dream of anything, anywhere, or anyone better?"
Novosibirsk, USSR • April 04, 1975

My first desire and pleasure in speaking to this distinguished audience today is to express my sincere thanks, with the greatest possible emphasis, to all those in the USSR who have made this occasion possible.

In particular I should like to thank publicly Dr. Jerma Gvishiani, Vladimir Orloy and Andrei Pavlov. I am also grateful to the many Ministers and Deputy Ministers of the government and their assistants, to the skillful and well-informed workers at the State Committee for Science and Technology, to the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Novosibirsk, to all those with Intourist, to those with your excellent finance and banking institutions. In fact, I remember with thanks all those official and unofficial personalities with whom I have come in contact since 1972, when I first visited your country.

Since those days in July of July 1972 I have visited the USSR fifteen times. On every trip I have been impressed by your unusual hospitality, friendliness and generosity. Members of my own family, as well as many of my commercial business and academic associates, have been received with the utmost understanding by your nation and your people. As a result, I believe that I can speak with some measure of confidence about the United States and the USSR, strong in the belief that I am addressing men and women of serious purpose, high intelligence, and strong motivation for friendly relations.

I am glad, too, that I have had the opportunity to receive some citizens of your country at my own home in the USA.

All of these activities over the last 2 1/2 years have contributed to my understanding of your immense country and your courageous, hard-working people. These experiences are part of the reason why I welcome this chance to discuss with you various maters of the greatest importance to your country and mine, and to the world.

We confer today in the meeting as citizens of nations physically distant and ideologically distant. But during the time of fascist aggression, we fought along side each other. Though we have and hold two separate visions, we are alike the heirs of great revolutions. We are both nations of many races, of vast resources, of continental expanses. We have the power to end the human presence on earth – or the human poverty of earth. We can light the sky with nuclear fire – or set in orbit the man-made starts of shared space exploration. We can exhaust our energies over the issues which divide us – or we can improve security and society by pursuing, through a continued and deepened détente, the interests which unite us.

But I believe in more than détente. I believe that history calls us both to a destiny beyond détente, beyond peaceful coexistence, into a new era which might be best described as an era of “common existence.”

Common existence recognizes that even coexistence by itself is not enough – that even though there are proper areas of competition, there are inescapable and increasing imperatives of cooperation – that the Soviet Union and the United States must change with the world we inhabit – and that this world will be neither habitable nor hospitable for ourselves or for others unless we invest less in rival endeavor and more in shared enterprise.

By calling for the goal of common existence, I do not intend to imply that there is convergence between our economic or social systems. But I do intend to say that world-wise changes of vast and unprecedented dimensions are now occurring, that these changes have created a new situation, a new revolution which permeates all knowledge and pervades all relations between nations and among peoples; science, commerce, diplomacy and warfare will not be the same again.

We cannot deflect this new revolution. Even a combination of the strongest powers could not work a shared will on every question. Super-power condominium is a cliché, an impossibility, an unreality. We have not right or way to such dominion. And we have no means of isolation. Other nations have nuclear power or potential; other peoples are more than equal in some resources and raw materials; other states can poison the air, fish out the oceans, overpopulate the planet, or release unnatural and uncontrollable bacteria. We could not stand apart from the Third World or the Fourth World of developing nations, or from Western Europe and Japan, even if we, the super-powers, were in total agreement on every subject.

The new revolution to which I have referred has at least two dimensions. The first is the dimension of necessity; the second, that of possibility. Problems of staggering complexity – from the prevention of nuclear holocaust to the preservation of ecological integrity – pose new necessities and summon us all to new levels of international effort. At the same time, the very forces of science and technology which have thrust upon us this need for action offer new possibilities and hold the promise of a new framework for human progress. The framework – the structure of possibility – embodies an ethical system drawing in part on the ideals of science, a range of problem-solving techniques drawing on the methods of scientific inquiry, and a set of international arrangements drawing on the global unity of science as an enterprise.

It is my conviction that contemporary science can suggest the beginnings of the ethic which must underlie civilization’s common existence, although I will propose the need for modes of though beyond science itself in the fuller development of that ethic. I hope you will forgive my foray into territory whose geography you know much better than I do; I am an international lawyer, not a scientist. But perhaps you will permit me some general observations. Science as we know it can best be characterized as an endeavor dedicated to the search for truth in a manner distorted by no dogma, pursued by the interaction of individual and community, and disciplined by an awareness of ultimate responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices. It is these very elements that I believe must shape international life in the coming era.

Let me be more specific, by offering a recent example. Earlier this year, an international conference of molecular biologist was held in Asilomar, California. Scientists from the Soviet Union and the United States met with their counterparts from other nations to propose a worldwide system of restraints and safeguards on further research in genetic engineering. The participants demanded commitment to the vigorous pursuit of knowledge by replacing a previously imposed ban on certain categories of experiments with a more moderate set of limitations. This moderation was made possible by the intervening development of a technique for rendering dangerous microorganisms harmless upon their exposure to the atmosphere. At the same time, those who took part in the Asilomar Conference demonstrated their sense of responsibility to society as a whole by agreeing upon, and urging their governments to accept, limitations in whose absence organisms of potentially devastating toxicity to man might yet be unleashed. The participants recognized that the technical ability to do a thing does not necessarily mean that it should be done; and they recognized that limits on what may be done can be made effective only at the international level. Hard as it is to stay they impulse of experimentation, it becomes virtually impossible when the scientists of one nation can say, “let’s go ahead because others will do the experiment anyway.” Finally, the Asilomar Conference illustrated the promising interaction of individual and communal effort on which societies must increasingly rely. For it was both individual and team research that made the Asilomar resolve possible; and it was the international science community that created the context for Asilomar itself.

But the resolve of Asilomar represented a bare beginning. The scientists who met there directed their attention only to a narrow range of relatively technical problems – risks of physical damage or disease caused by newly created or released microorganisms. The more subtle the risks associated with emerging fields of biomedical research and technology – like the risk that we may destroy the essence of humanity as we pursue man’s perfection through behavioral modification and biomedical manipulation – are yet to be addressed in a responsible international forum.

Methods of using electronic and chemical brain stimulation to alter patterns of behavior and even to change an individual’s basic character are in the early stages of development in a number of countries; apart from some experience in psychosurgery, most of the relevant experimentation is still being done with animals rather than humans. More and more scientists and philosophers, as well as concerned citizens, are asking a basic question: Despite the great promise of these techniques, should the technology of neurological manipulation be developed?

The advanced nations have already done vast damage. After the recent voyage of the Ra, Thor Heyerdahl reported a new discovery which confirmed the worst fears of scientists, voiced over many years: There is a man-made sea of pollution quite literally overlaying the ocean. Yet men still make the ocean, the womb of all life, their largest garbage dump, which plundering its reserves of life. It is alarming that world fish yields, for the first time in history, have actually fallen over the past two years. Nor is the air which circles our planet any more immune from the poisons of careless technology. The ozone which may be destroyed by one nation’s fleet of supersonic planes is the ozone which could have protected every nation’s people from cancer inducing radiation.

By supporting the United Nations Environment Program, your government and mine made a commitment to international environmental cooperation. But both of us must go further than either has yet shown a willingness to go. Particularly when our own immediate interests are at stake, neither nation has adequately remembered that ours is indeed a “spaceship earth,” a frail vehicle with finite resources of nourishment and regeneration, with no airlocks for anyone against another’s fouling of the atmosphere, no watertight compartments to prevent flooding from a polluted ocean; a world whose physical frontiers have been reached, and, in many ways, exceeded. We cannot expect others to be responsible if we do not accept our responsibilities. We cannot ask them to take a long-range view when we are shortsighted – when the Soviet Union resists proposals at the Bucharest Conference to limit population growth – or when the United States postpones scheduled environmental protections.

Instead, we must move in a common effort of many nations to reclaim the seas, to monitor regional and global pollution and inadvertent weather modification from all sources, to share information on the testing and dissemination of potentially dangerous new synthetics, to provide advance notice and discussion of experiments and activities which could have irreversible adverse effects, to develop our understanding of the ethical foundation of environmental choices, and to take other measures that fully recognize the extent of our dependence upon a bounded and wounded earth. Together we will protect our planet – or separately, at first a relative few of us, then more, then millions, and finally generations will perish amid its pollution.

[…] without the greatest caution – […] in all countries across all boundaries, which directions of development promise to fulfill the highest human aspirations and which direction threaten to degrade humanity. For if we ask such questions, then we will soon find ourselves aboard a directionless satellite, hurtling through spaces we have never charted, with no hope of ever turning back.

This is the crossroads to which I believe modern science and technology are bringing us. I do not shrink from the questions we must now confront; I welcome them as the worthiest questions that can ever engage our attention. That those questions can never be answered with total certainty need not be a source of dismay; choosing for the future without the benefit of foreknowledge may, after all, be the only possible form of human freedom. The biomedical advances that now perplex us promise also to heal the sick and to help the disabled. And the mirror that those advances hold before us is a mirror into our very souls.

No discipline, no ideology, no nation, has a monopoly on truth in this deepest of realms. Eastern mystics as well as Western pragmatists, capitalist theorists and liberals as well as Marxist philosophers, agnostic humanists as well as Christian and Jewish and Moslem theologians – all may have insights to contribute to the ethical discourse we must undertake if we are to act responsibly in making the momentous choices that lie ahead. I stress that the need for such discourse depends on no assumption of a convergence among various ethical and moral views, just as the need for a partnership of nations within a common global existence depends on no assumed convergence among national political or economic systems. The need for discourse, like the need for global partnerships, arises instead from the impossibility of discerning and doing what is right in splendid isolation. Only shared discernment – open-minded dialogue and controversy – can move us toward ethical solutions in this difficult time.

The need to pause and to reflect in ethical dialogue before taking potentially irreversible actions is greatest when those actions go to the very root of what we are and force us to look into the abyss of what we might become. Technologies that could so directly reshape the nature of man are only beginning to appear on the horizon of realistic possibilities. This gives us all some reason to hope, since there is still time to act before the momentum of psychological, economic, and bureaucratic commitment puts us on a trajectory that we may be powerless to change.

Technologies that affect man less directly – by altering his natural environment while leaving the essence of man himself largely unchanged – are in a different posture. Which respect to many such technologies, the need to pause for ethical assessment may be less powerful inasmuch as the truly irreversible consequences are likely to be less profound. Yet the case for careful assessment of technologies in this environmental category may in a sense be more pressing, since many of them fit into patterns of development that are already too firmly fixed and too deeply surrounded by vested interests to be changed with ease; we cannot expect the opportunity for choice with respect to technologies that affect the environment to be with us for long.

Happily, each of our nations had manifested a new awareness of the delicate sphere of the world’s threatened ecosystems, and of the need to engage in serous analysis and dialogue before taking actions likely to have substantial environmental impacts. Each of us has enacted significant legal constraints upon the heedless plunder of land, air and water resources; TASS reports that you have allocated “every tenth ruble” to a major program of environmental protection. And bilaterally, our nations have entered into a far-reaching agreement for cooperative research in eleven areas ranging from pollution control to earthquake prediction.

Yet much more is required, not only in the form of joint efforts to improve our respective environments, but also in the form of international initiatives to forge an environmental consciousness and responsibility the world over. Neither of us can take such an initiative alone, for then either of us would be accused of callous indifference to the needs of less developed economies. But together we can speak the same truth: after a process of economic development heedless of natural systems, there will be little use for canals which salinate fields instead of irrigating them; there will be small reward from an industrialization which makes the air itself an agent of death; no one will gain in the long run by subverting the natural systems which sustain the existence of us all.

The global challenge of ecology characteristically illustrates both the new level of difficult of the problems whose solution we must seek together and the paradoxical character of contemporary science and technology in relation to such problems. In part their source, modern science and technique can also aid in their elimination. Both by providing the technical means of monitoring and controlling environmental hazards and by enabling us to process the previously unmanageable masses of data required for effective monitoring and control, the shared use of the sciences can contribute to the reclamation of the earth.

In a parallel way, the sciences can come to the aid of the half billion people who are today at the edge of famine. Although the crisis has yet to be universally conceded, the evidence of its existence had mounted beyond the point of rational denial. The food shortage is not a rumor started by hundreds of thousands of dying children, or millions of malnourished parents.

Coming to terms realistically with the food shortage is in our mutual interest, for we cannot permanently endure as secure islands in a sea of starvation. It is to the interest of both of us as nations because we, too, have occasional food shortages. We have our own real, if rarely admitted, problems of malnutrition. And it is in the interest of us both, and of the world as a whole, that our two countries join with others who are trying to shape and support and international organization to develop and disseminate new agricultural technologies to collect and process statistical information on projected food shortages and food supplies, and to gather a global food reserve.

Yet, consider my country’s past decisions to withhold land from agricultural production; nor our frequent misuse of food as an instrument of international politics; observe your country’s reluctance to release agricultural data on grounds of national security; recall your understandable suspicion that the release of detailed information on food production could swell the profits of grain traders rather than filling the stomachs of the hungry. These are sincere and genuine fears. But why should we accept things as they are? Existing hunger and the threat of famine call for a commitment by both of our nations to the emerging structure of agreements based on the recent World Food Conference in Rome. The structure must be carefully built, so every nation can exercise appropriate control, and vital information can be accumulated and assessed in ways sensitive to the need for […] alert to the risks of exploitation. But no nation, in my judgment, should stand aside while most nations are working to design a viable world food system. We in the USA and the USSR have competed with one another for nuclear superiority; now let us cooperate with many others for the sake of food sufficiency, bringing to our mutual aid the resources of our scientific enterprise.

One could multiply endlessly the fields in which such scientific and technical cooperation represent a promising path to our mutual benefit and the world’s basic wellbeing. You know better than I those areas of our science and technology which would be of interest or use to you. For our part, many of us are particularly attracted by your work in such fields as MHD generators, thermonuclear fusion, coal gasification, power transmission, and the extraction of aluminum from nephelite. More important than extending this list of illustrations is recognizing its existence.

The significance of such a list – of an array of areas of potential scientific cooperation – was brought home to me most vividly by my recent visit to the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis near Vienna. This Institute has many unusual qualities. First of all, scientists are at work there from both socialist and capitalist countries. They work in harmony and with mutual respect. Advanced computers at the Institute link these scientists with information contained in other computers in Novosibirsk, Moscow, San Francisco, Boston, Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt, Oxford, Cambridge, at M.I.T. and Cal. Tech. The socialist and capitalist scientists talk back and forth to socialist and capitalist computers. The information flow to and from the International Institute is almost instantaneous and effortless. Those scientists work on weather and climate prediction and control, oceanography, and a host of other problems. The scientists believe that the most urgent problems of the future can be studied and solved best and quickest, and perhaps only, on a basis which transcends national frontiers.

The goals and methods of the Institute do not mean that national frontiers are unimportant. They do mean that the problems which today are causing the most difficulty cannot be fully or perfectly solved on a national basis alone. They cannot be “solved” in Washington or Moscow, or by the two of us acting together. Their solution requires information from all parts and peoples of the world and the globally cooperative efforts of scientific and political intelligence. Outside of Vienna, in Antarctica and in outer space, this new style of cooperative effort is already at work – financed by your country and mine, and by others; managed and supervised by men and women from your country and mine, and by others; with the results available to your country and mine, and to many others. This style of philosophy and planning could be applied with great promise to other areas and other problems, provided there is the will to do so on both sides, provided there is trust, and provided there is an adequate effort to broaden the analyses – the scientific and technological assessments – to include the moral and ethical dimensions of all choices under study.

A number of important efforts to address such dimensions exist in both our countries, and in other nations as well. But no effort of which I am aware adequately draws forth the combined insights of imaginative and capable scientists, ethical and moral philosophers, theologians, psychohistorians – of all those who might contribute to the wise resolution of questions about scientific and technological development.

Just last month, the United States and the Soviet Union held the first meeting of their newly created Joint Commission of Social Sciences and Humanities. The discussions embraced eight areas: economics, history, literature, international relations, law, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Such an extension of international cooperation beyond the physical and natural sciences is certainly encouraging. But still missing is any framework for including ethical concerns, or any structure for focusing such concerns upon the specific choices that raise them most powerfully.

As the first step toward filling this major gap, I would take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to address the scientific community at Novosibirsk by proposing the creating of an International Institute for Science, Ethics and Public Policy. Modeled in part on the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the institute I have in mind would have two major features: First, its central concern would be a normative one: to assist in deciding what should be done. Second, the basic pattern for studies by the institute I propose would be the assessment of particular science-related problems and plans, followed by the publication of reasoned opinions – including dissents and separate concurring views when they are strongly held – making and defending specific policy recommendations to the responsible officials and agencies. Complete consensus among the individuals doing a particular study would be neither necessary nor, in many instances, desirable. “Non-controversial communication almost invariably tends to be conversation about the inconsequential.” What is important is that each study would generate sustained and focused reflection, in a partnership among concerned and qualified scholars, upon a concrete problem with both scientific and ethical dimensions. The published conclusions of any such study would be binding on no one. But they might nonetheless be expected to influence public policy in significant ways, especially since the studies would focus on questions with respect to which very few people had already become committed in a specific direction, and since the scientists and technologists selected to do the studies would be likely to prove generally influential in policy matters.

As I now envision the institute, its studies would be internationally funded in such a way as to maximize their independence and disinterestedness. A typical study term would them be directed by a group of scholars and researchers deeply concerned with the particular kind of choice being examined, and highly qualified by basic ability and prior experience to offer sophisticated perspectives on the matter under analysis. At least one major participant in each study should be someone of distinction in a relevant scientific or technical field; at least one other should be a person of comparable distinction in a relevant ethical or moral discipline. In selecting study participants, the institute would search for persons whose combination of open-mindedness with respect to the particular project, concern about the subject matter, and demonstrated intellectual capacity to shed helpful light on its appropriate resolution, would render their advice worthy of serious consideration by anyone sharing responsibility for ultimate action.

I have no illusion that the institute’s studies, even if performed with great wisdom and disseminated widely, would represent anything like a complete solution to our science related problems; I urge these studies only as a tentative first step toward the ethical humanization of science and technology. Nor have I any illusions about the difficulty of creating the sort of institute I have described. My own four year experience in actively seeking a Marxist ethicist for the Kennedy Institute of Human Reproduction and Bioethics in Washington, DC has shown me how difficult it can be to recruit the needed individuals. Indeed, we have a standing invitation to the Soviet Union to propose a distinguished Marxist philosopher capable of joining us in exploring the moral and ethical issues posed by biomedical advances, and I would like to repeat that invitation to this audience.

The early history of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis should remind us all that the creation of arrangements for international intellectual cooperation requires delicate bilateral and multilateral negotiations. We have long recognized the need for such negotiations in the implementation of policy; we must also recognize their necessity in the design of institutions which can generate the knowledge and the ethical base on which policy is to be predicated.

Such negotiations cannot succeed if you or we insist on ideological rigidities. We must be prepared to engage one another in dialogue that is neither blind to our differences nor blinded by them. When I was in Moscow a week ago, I spoke at Dr. Arbatoy’s Institute of USA and Canada Studies about how such dialogue might be fostered; I will not repeat those views here, since my main purpose in having this discussion in Novosibirsk, -- in your scientific capital – is to share with you my thoughts about the place of science in our common future.

I have stressed today the complexity and variety of the issues science and technology now pose. Precisely because of that complexity and variety, any plausible plan for progress must assure that no potentially valuable idea, no potentially relevant fact, is unnecessarily withheld from anyone who might use the fact to reach a better decision. Ernst Trooltsch was right when he announced at the turn of the century that “new thoughts will have to be thought.” They cannot be thought well if they must be thought alone. This of course implies a lowering of barriers to the exchange of ideas in the international arena. Though you may reject our nation’s ideals of free expression, let us agree that impediments to the unfettered flow of opinion may be obstacles to the mutual search for workable and ethical solutions to many problems. Occasionally, higher values are served by limiting access to data; no one in his right mind would advocate the publication of blueprints for a plutonium bomb. But the most effective methods to control plutonium theft, and thus limit the danger of clandestine proliferation, cannot be devised if the engineers who think about these problems cannot share ideas with one another. Solutions to the world’s agricultural problems cannot be certain if data bearing on levels of production and patterns of distribution are treated as national secrets. Ways of producing energy with less fouling of our common nest cannot be invented and perfected if the scientists who seek to understand the workings of ecosystems cannot enter into dialogue with their colleagues in other lands. Ideas about man’s obligations to his environment or to his brothers and sisters cannot be greatly refines if they cannot be broadly shared.

At times both of our nations have over classified, over protected, and over controlled intellectual products and exchange. In the recognition of mutual fault, and in the realization of a mutual interest in rectifying our errors in this respect, there may lie a basis for acknowledging and ultimately protecting a fundamental human right – the right to think and communicate on questions of basic importance to the human condition – question like:

Who is man?

What is his destiny?

Is total power perfect happiness?

If man should achieve total dominion over this planet and its inhabitants, even over evolution and physical life, so that by transplanting organs, heart, lungs, liver, hands, heads – a certain man or woman could “live forever,” would that person then be perfectly happy? Would he or she be a worker, or a monarch, or a slave, trapped forever in nothing but human life, with no dream of anything, anywhere, or anyone better?

Now more than ever before, these are questions you in Novosibirsk – and scientists and ethicists the world over – must start to ask yourselves and one another.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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