Why Almost Nobody Is Interested In Ethics…

Kudos to Ann Althouse for finding this monstrosity: “3D Printing and the Murky Ethics of Replicating Bones.” Ann quips, “The murkiness in getting to the point of what’s murky in the ethics is evidence of what a sensitive problem it is.”

The forum, ironically enough, is RealClear Science, and the author is Sarah Wild, a South African science journalist and author. It may help to know that she hails from Undark, an e-mag that purports to to “explore science in both light and shadow, and to bring that exploration to a broad, international audience.” Should I be suspicious of the magazine because Charles M. Blow is on its board? No…but I am.

The article is incompetent structurally because it doesn’t begin to explain exactly what the “murky ethics issues” are until about  half way through a very long article, and it’s hard to read when one is asleep. Even after the issues are drip-drip-dripped out, it is never made clear by the author what established ethical principles are involved. The ethics issue of scientists taking bones of unidentified people from burial sites in other nations has always been, for me, an ick vs. ethics controversy. The original owners of the bones are not harmed in any way, and if those individuals’ families aren’t aware of the whereabouts of the remains and have taken no steps to assert control over them, they are not harmed either.

I may have missed something, but I think the main “murky ethics issue” justifying this endless exposition is that 3-D printed bones allow scientists to profit from the body parts of others, and the author is suggesting that the profits should be somehow distributed to the descendants, following an expensive inquiry into who they might be. I don’t call that “murky.” I call it “contrived.” That is, of course, if I’m correctly interpreting the turgid, verbose and soporific prose that Wild gives us. Maybe she’s making a religious point, except the desecration of burial spots has taken place with the real bones, not their copies. Is it disrespectful of ancient religions to make a 3-D copy of the result of a grave desecration? Gee, what a fascinating question….

Mostly what the article generates is a strong, echoing, “Who cares?” in my brain, and this is what the vast majority of scholarly ethics writing has  been for centuries. It’s unethical to make ethics so technical and obtuse that normal people lose interest.

But I’ve said too much already: read this thing, if your sock drawer is in order, and see if you can figure out what vital technology ethics issue is being revealed.  I’m eager to be enlightened.


5 thoughts on “Why Almost Nobody Is Interested In Ethics…

  1. This seems more like virtue signaling than anything else. I saw some people try to replicate bones with a 3-D printer. They were trying to get the 3-D bones to have the same strength and crush properties as real bones. That way, you can conduct experiments and simulations of how injuries result without having to harvest actual bones. Most of the actual bones studied, from what I can tell, were bones from cadavers donated to science. I’m not sure I see an actual ethics problem here, unless you want to make the social justice argument.

    The obvious social justice argument I can think of is that maybe some of the bones were from minorities and minorities shouldn’t be allowed to donate their bodies to science because Western Science oppresses minorities. Since Western Science and all Western Civilization oppresses minorities, the only minorities that would choose to help promote such science have been brainwashed, therefore minorities must be forbidden from doing things like donating their bodies to science. Oh, and universities need to graduate more minorities in science, engineering, and medical fields.

  2. From the article…

    “At the heart of this issue is whether the underlying data and the resulting images are the same as human bone.”

    This is a no brainier, they are NOT the same and they never should be considered the same. End of ethical dilemma.

    “But other groups, including aboriginal communities and indigenous groups, strongly disagree, and consider data and replicas to be part of the deceased individual’s personhood.”

    Yup, and taking a photograph of a person steals that persons soul. These people are making up this kind of shit on the fly out of ignorance. This is the problem as I see it; when you choose to include absolutely ridiculous constructs, like the notion that the data and replicas is part of personhood, as being relevant to the ethics evaluation it will always skew the ethics and give credence to absolute absurdity. Their ethics dilemma is off the rails of reality.

    • Agreed; they are attempting to build a premise that the concept of intellectual property applies to the technology in this case. They’re making legal arguments, not ethical ones.

      This isn’t somebody making a copy of a DVD to sell on the black market, or to give to a friend, or derivative works like pasting the president’s face and media logos on various actors. This isn’t recording some evening’s football game. It’s copying an artifact.

      It’s more along the lines of digitizing James Dean into the next Blockbuster film, but to a much smaller degree.

      The premise that studying different physical racial characteristics is unethical is prima facie incorrect. If you’re sanctioned by law to study sickle-cell anemia with participants representative to the population and not to the occurrence of the disease, you’re more likely to develop treatments that will help majority populations to a greater degree than minority ones! If anything, you should study the minority population _more_ to make up for their lower likelihood of obtaining treatment.

  3. I tried to read this thing earlier this morning and was thinking of sending you a link to the article so that you could comment on the ethics of crappy writing. I passed out from boredom waiting for her to get to the point though and didn’t follow through.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.