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Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science Classes?

A New Look at an Old Debate

by Carolyn Csongradi

Why The Topic Of Bioethics In Science Classes?

"...if we decide that we do not have time to stop and think about right and wrong, then we do not have time to figure out right from wrong which means that we do not have time to live according to our model of right and wrong, which means, simply put, we don't have time for lives of integrity..." Stephen Carter (6)

Technology and science are value laden:

  • Our society is becoming increasingly technological in orientation. In technology as opposed to science there are several factors impacting the final product which an inventor needs to consider: the inventor's motives and intention; embedded objectives such as patent and market control; unintended consequences to the user. The development and marketing of the home refrigerator provides a good example. (7) In the late 1920's, two competing types of refrigerators were available: electric compression and gas absorption. While the gas absorption had no moving parts and was silent as a result, th e electric one had a motor which was being manufactured by companies in the United States. Furthermore, motors use electricity and this was advantageous for the utility companies. In the end, the gas absorption refrigerator is found in Europe, having been squeezed out of the market in the United States. Technology is value laden.
  • With knowledge comes responsibility. The history of the human genome project predicts we will determine the genetic causes of human disease long before treatment is available, even though these diseases are fundamental to current problems in society. "In short, in the vision inspired by the success of molecular biologists, 'nature' became newly malleable, perhaps infinitely so; certainly it was vastly more malleable than anyone had ever imagined 'nurture' to be." Some estimates are as long as fifty years between treatment or cure options and elucidation of the causes. The economic costs to individuals and society is enormous for some diseases and the pressure to somehow reduce the burden is rapidly increasing. (25)
  • The sense that objective insight is gained through detachment is a hallmark of the scientific process. However, the role of objectivity needs to be balanced by the realization that without our ability to walk-in-the-shoes of another, we may exist in a world of self-centered ignorance, depending largely on rationalization to make decisions which require a measure of compassion.
  • Both factual knowledge and values are relative to where we are in the historical record. Over the course of a thousand or more years, scientific discoveries have been dismissed when they were deemed inconsistent with current thinking. With time, those disputed findings have been accepted as "truth" and changed the theoretical course of scientific history. What we have decided to value has also changed as we fa ce a period in which our survival as a species may be determined by decisions this generation will make concerning managing environmental problems.(39)

The time is right:

  • Adolescents are passionately interested in moral questions suggesting this may be a critical time for moral education.(12) Knowledge arises when the mind interacts with content; moral knowledge develops as an evolving process between the self and moral principles around real-life issues. The question is what role schools and teachers should play in the acquisition of this knowledge.
  • Despite his critics, Kohlberg's theory continues to be the focus of much research on adolescents and moral thinking. Programs based on his theory present hypothetical moral dilemmas and the educator facilitates discussion by asking questions and challenging statements rather than presenting solutions. Such programs have resulted in advances in moral reasoning using Kohlberg's six stages as criteria.(41)
  • In response to a curriculum which stimulated moral thinking in adolescents, students report becoming more sensitive, more reflective and less hasty in their judgments.(3) They are more aware of others' problems and of the consequences of their own actions or inaction. It has also been shown on tests of knowledge that acquisition and retention of discrete bits of information are facilitated in classrooms where teachers encourage discussion of controversial issues and encourage students to express their own opinion.
  • Despite the concern that bioethical issues require complex critical thinking skills, using stage theories such as Piaget's which are based on brain matura tion as a reason to lessen the cognitive challenges for early adolescents is not supported by the best available data. In fact most evidence suggests that such delays may be harmful.(24)
  • "Everything we do, then, as teachers, has moral overtones. Through dialogue, modeling, the provisions of practice, and the attribution of best motive, the one-caring as teacher nurture the ethical ideal. She cannot nurture the student intellectually without regard for the ethical ideal..." Nel Noddings(32)

Teaching Moral Problem Solving Continued:


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