Campus & Community

New course provokes students

6 min read

'Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature' offers many questions, few answers

Professor Douglas Melton asked his Harvard class this question: Should drugs and other treatments used for curing disease also be used to extend our physical capabilities, to, say, enhance athletic performance?

By a show of hands, about 85 percent of the students voted “no.”

Then Melton’s teaching partner and provocateur, Professor Michael Sandel, asked, “Why not?” Hands flew up and opinions flew around for two hours. Agreement and disagreement continued throughout the week in discussion sections, where the 240 students enrolled in the course, “Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature,” are broken up into smaller groups of 15. It also continued on the “bioethics blog,” a course Web site where students who didn’t raise their hands or didn’t get to say enough in class express their views.


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The course probes the intellectual minefields between science and ethics, and it teaches by provoking. “Doug usually begins with a short lecture on biology, then I pose questions about the ethic involved, explains Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government. “We provoke students to think and to argue, not only with us and each other, but with themselves.”

The students like it. “The course challenges many of the ideas and beliefs that so many of us hold with little investigation into a proper defense for these thoughts,” says senior Michael Gaffney. “Though the process can sometimes be frustrating, I’d rather have a process that makes me reconsider my thoughts about important issues than to progress through life having never considered the ramifications of my positions.”

“The lectures are wonderful,” agrees senior Carl Shulman. “Sandel has a style that is half Socratic and half game-show host. Melton makes a great complement as a ‘straight man’ and scientific powerhouse.”

The class on “better bodies” (using science to boost physical ability) had it all. There were protests from athletes in the class, Melton’s heartwarming wish for equality in bicep mass for all, Sandel’s question whether trampoline basketball is a sport or a spectacle, and the suggestion that we have a “mutant Olympics” along with the traditional one.

The give-and-take provides a unique opportunity for students to think and learn about the latest advances in biotechnology – from sex selection to cloning – and at the same time to debate the humanistic questions posed by such technology. Polls taken on the course Web site reveal that students who come to class with one opinion can change their minds after reflecting on their positions and hearing what others have to say. On the question of whether it is ever OK to use safe, performance-enhancing drugs, “yeses” more than doubled, from 16 to 34 percent.

Dilemma, disagreement, and discussion

Another class situation covered a successful attempt by two profoundly deaf people who did everything they possibly could to have a deaf child. At first, most of the students agreed that deliberately conceiving a deaf child was morally OK. But after discussion and reflection, the split widened to 50-50.

Other questions include “Is there anything wrong with using a Nobel Prize sperm donor in hopes of conceiving a brilliant baby? If you could clone yourself or your children as safely as giving natural birth, would there be any reason to ban it? Stem cell research on excess embryos from fertility clinics is legal with permission of the “parents,” but is it wrong to create embryos solely for the sake of doing experiments on them? If it becomes possible to select the sex and other characteristics of children, would it be morally objectionable to do so? What, if anything, is wrong with the creation of human-animal hybrids?

Sandel had been teaching a seminar touching on such questions, and he asked Melton, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences and an expert on stem cell research, to join him. “It proved so exciting for the students and so much fun for us, we decided to experiment with teaching a lecture course together for undergraduates,” Sandel recalls.

On the first day, the classroom was crowded beyond “standing room only.” Some 380 students applied for the 240 slots available. The seats had to be filled by a lottery.

The present class is about evenly split between science concentrators and non-science concentrators, so it’s not just about teaching ethics to biologists. “Michael and I see the course as borne out of a conviction that science concentrators and non-science concentrators should be brought together at the border of biology and ethics, in a way that both groups benefit,” Melton points out.

“Doug and I have disagreements and we play them out in the classroom,” Sandel explains. “The students hear us develop our views, then argue with us and each other. It’s working extremely well.”

The meaning of life

When Melton and Sandel agree too closely, they may bring someone into the classroom who opposes their view. They both think, for example, that creating embryonic stem cells in the laboratory, which Melton does, and using them to find cures for diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, is morally justified. To be sure that their students were exposed to the opposing opinion, they recruited Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

An impressive speaker, Doerflinger presented a series of arguments against using embryos, which he insisted are living human beings, in laboratory research. He argued for alternative solutions such as the use of adult stem cells, as well as those taken from umbilical cords. Melton convincingly rebutted Doerflinger’s technical and scientific arguments, and both more or less agreed that the controversy comes down to a question of when life begins and, thus, when is a life destroyed.

Melton asked Doerflinger if a day-old embryo and a 6-year-old boy are moral equivalents. Doerflinger said that they were. Then why, Melton asked, does society tolerate filling up freezers with embryos but not 6-year-olds?

The question brought applause from the students and discomfort for Doerflinger. In the poll, a large majority of students agreed with Melton, although a few spoke up in class and afterwards in defense of Doerflinger’s position.

How will such debates help college students in the “real world”?

“One of the purposes of a good education is to prepare students to engage in rational discourse and debate with people who don’t agree with them,” Melton answers. “At this time in history, science is presenting citizens with a rapidly growing number of major choices about the future of their and human nature. Citizens should be equipped with knowledge and rational opinions that will enable them to discuss the impact of issues such as global warming and advances in biotechnology.”

“We live in a time when science matters more than ever before,” Sandel adds. “It will be especially important in the years ahead for all citizens to have a basic familiarity with biology, even if their careers are unrelated to science. Many of the choices we will be making in the future will arise from the current revolution in biotechnology. We will be responsible for the impact of these choices whether we are scientists or not.”