I have been reading over H. Tristram Engelhardt's (ed.) Global Bioethics: The Collapse of Consensus
lately. As its grim title suggests, the book does not indicate that there will be worldwide consensus on bioethical issues anytime soon. But it is -- and has always been -- precisely the lack of consensus that has driven many a moral philosopher or theologian to seek a kind of Ethical El Dorado, the one true set of ethical judgments that everyone (purely on the basis of being human) has to agree with. You can see the tendency at work in human rights documents, in international codes of research ethics, and in philosophical treatises. The desire for a universal morality (as opposed to the mores
of some particular culture and tradition) seems to express a rage for order, and disgust with seemingly endless and messy ethical disagreement and conflict. Why can't we all get along?
The success rate, at least since Plato, has been abominable. What typically happens is that in order to become potentially universalizable, the set of judgments becomes so abstract as to become meaningless. It is almost as if one climbs a mountain top to transcend human disagreements and conflicts of value, only to find that -- while the panoramic view is great -- you have run right out of oxygen. But if more substantive content is added to the judgments, people start bickering about them again, and the reality of moral diversity comes flooding back.
I was reminded of this when a Vatican official, Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, spoke last week
about adding seven new sins to the traditional seven deadly sins. The idea, according to the Monsignor, is that globalization requires us to upgrade the categories of sin beyond the old familiar ground covered by lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. The new sins are:
1. “Bioethical” violations such as birth control
2. “Morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research
3. Drug abuse
4. Polluting the environment
5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
6. Excessive wealth
7. Creating poverty
Predictably, the response to the new list of sins has been mixed, even among those who are willing to play along with the notion of 'sin'. Some have argued that following the guidance of new sin #1 (don't use birth control) may in fact lead you to violate numbers 3, 5, and 7. Certainly the Catholic teachings against condom use in Africa has not helped the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic has created poverty and contributed to the widening divide between rich and poor countries. Sin #3 (drug abuse) seems just a variation on the old sin of gluttony, so not really a new one; if they are going to recast old sins in new guises, they should have added pedophilia as an updated form of sinful lust. Critics have noted that the Vatican (in regard to new sin # 6) is certainly not hurting for money, and whether stem cell research is morally dubious depends on the eye of the beholder, as well as where you are getting the stem cells from.
In short, yet another list promising moral guidance for everyone, but in reality delivering it only for those who did not need the list anyway.