Harold T. Shapiro Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing Role of University Presidents: Conversation with Harold T. Shapiro, former President of Princeton and of the University of Michigan, March 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ethics and Biomedical Research

One of your current interests has become the ethical problems raised by biomedical research. How did you get involved in that discourse?

I got interested and involved in bioethics in a serious way in late 1995, when President Clinton asked me to chair the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. I had not spent a lot of time in this area. Bioethics is not my area of specialty at all. But I did spend five to six years as head of that commission, with a wonderful and generous group of commissioners, most of whom had spent their lives working on bioethical issues. It was a tremendous educational experience, and I got captivated by this particular application of moral philosophy.

I have always been interested in applying the tools of moral philosophy to actual issues that people have to confront in their day-to-day lives, and the nation has to confront in the formation of public policy, particularly where there are ethically contested issues. Liberal democracy is where we value cultural pluralism; you're bound to have disagreements on ethical issues. The question is, how do you resolve them? It's been a general area of interest of mine. This opportunity to head this commission enabled me to think more carefully about this issue and the biomedical arena. I headed that commission about six years, and the past three years I have been teaching in that area. So that's how I got into it.

What surprised you most in the deliberations of the commission?

What surprised me most was the public response to a number of developments in the biomedical frontier. That is, people responded with great consternation, and sometimes fear, in areas like cloning, or reproductive cloning, especially; or the controversy that surrounded embryonic stem cell research. I was initially unclear what people were so excited about, and so a good deal of my own work in the last few years has been focused on that issue. What is it that gets people so uncertain in this area? What is it that's bothering them? It's been an interesting journey, and I've learned a lot in that area since then.

And what was bothering them?

What's bothering them is that the most basic of all human characteristics, in my judgment, is that society has developed narratives, stories which gives transcendental meaning to their own efforts. After all, an individual seems to be meaningless in this huge world of many individuals and forces beyond their control. Why do we all work so hard? Why do we sacrifice so much? Because we think we're part of a larger story that's evolving.

These narratives are developed over years. They may be revealed narratives, or they may be constructed narratives. They are critical to people's lives. I know many societies exhibit no [scientific] curiosity whatsoever. I don't know of any that don't have these narratives that support their joint efforts and sacrifices. Therefore, new developments in scientific frontiers sometimes upset these narratives. A number of dramatic historical examples: Copernicus finding out that we weren't the center of the universe, or Darwin finding out that we're just part of a vast evolutionary scheme, we're not so unique after all, and so on. These upset narratives, and people suffer a psychic loss when they become estranged from a narrative they've been committed to, because the truth claims are no longer possible to uphold -- that the planet Earth is the center of the universe, for example, or that human beings are completely unique. (We may be unique in certain dimensions, but we share a common genetic code with all living organisms.)

So these narratives get upset, and therefore we have to understand what it is that's upsetting people and help them resolve it and develop new narratives. You also, of course, have this enormous influence of science fiction, where science is always getting into evil hands, and that's very upsetting to people. These new discoveries remind people about that. I think these are social issues which can be resolved and worked on, but only if we recognize them.

How do you think this anxiety affects the political process, and with what consequences for the university?

It can have very important effects on the political process. For example, the federal government is a main supporter of biomedical research on most of the university campuses, and if it decides that it will not finance any work in therapeutic cloning or human embryonic stem cell research, this will cut off many opportunities for scientists who are working at universities. So science policy becomes an important thing.

Has there been a failure of politics to deal with these issues, and if so, why?

I think there has been a failure of politics to deal with a lot of these issues. One of the key reasons is that the pro-life/pro-choice debate has been about the most polarizing moral debate in our country. On the political scene, it's absolutely polarizing it. Anything that impacts on that has implications like that and is very controversial. It's controversial in many countries. But we seem less able than most to come to some workable compromise that people can live with.

How does this define, possibly, a new program for universities in educating students to think about these issues? Or have universities been doing a good job of that?

I don't think universities have been doing a good job, although they're doing a better job now than before. The time that students spend on the university campus, typically between the ages of 18 and 23 or 24, is a time of tremendous moral development, and the university ought to take on, self-consciously, the [question] of in what way can the university experience assist the moral development of their students or participate in the moral development of their students. It's everything, from the kind of moral leadership I talked about before -- the university explaining why they act the way they do and whose interests they are serving -- to how the curriculum is organized. If you're teaching courses where ethical issues come up, whether it's in science or in social science or the humanities, to explore these and to have students practice it, and deal with moral problems and make difficult moral calculations, and understand that there's an immense amount of anguish when you're trying to build a better world, because it's uncertain just where you're heading. I think we could be much more effective than we are in helping our students in their moral development during those years.

You're also suggesting that the scientific community itself has to think about engaging in this dialogue, not in a way that threatens their integrity as scientists, but with a greater empathy for the views of those people who focus on the breakdown of the narrative.

The scientific community must be involved in serious conversations with the non-scientific community. By serious, I mean conversations where both sides might change their minds on something. They might not, but at least they allow for the fact that they might. It's incredibly important that scientists participate, because they understand the science in the way that the rest of the citizens do not. You don't want any moral misunderstanding to arise just because you misunderstand what the science is all about. So scientists, by virtue of expertise, have a special need and a special responsibility to participate in these discussions.

You write, "The best of these conversations will include individuals of courage able to sustain a perspective, empathy to the interest of others' perspective, a capacity to identify the key issues, and the humility necessary to recognize when their mutual views need modification."

Yes, that's exactly what I mean when I talk about serious conversations. You both might exit the conversation thinking differently than when you went in. That would be good evidence that you picked up some empathy for an alternative point of view and modified your own perspective on the issue. Not to give up on things that you believe in but to understand that we all have to live together in a single, moral community and that might involve, from time to time, some compromise.

Next page: Conclusion

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