January 31, 2006

Moody-Adams Tackles Ethics

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The Bioethics Society of Cornell began their newest series of lectures yesterday with a talk by Prof. Michele Moody-Adams, philosophy, the vice provost of undergraduate education. Her lecture, titled “What Cultural Diversity Really Means For Bioethics,” took place in the Carol Tatkon Center and was attended by members of the Bioethics Society as well as the Cornell community.

Moody-Adams opened her lecture asking “what [it means] to take culture seriously.” She reviewed some of today’s prominent bioethics issues – contraception, health care, genetics and gene therapy, and experimentation on human subjects – as they relate to cultural differences.

Moody-Adams, also director and Hutchinson Professor of the Ethics and Public Life Program, emphasized the need for “a conception of culture that captures what we care about,” positing that all humans hold “a common morality” but are incapable of articulating it.

She followed by listing and debunking several common myths about cultural diversity. According to what Moody-Adams called the “myth of the internally integrated whole,” for example, a culture can be perceived as a “seamless web” of connections with no disparities or exceptions when in fact “no culture ever really satisfies this criterion.”

Particularly relevant to Moody-Adams’ theme of bridging cultural divides to facilitate bioethics discussions was her repeated reference to “the theory of fundamental opacity,” in which people assume that those from other cultures should be treated as fundamentally different. She called this idea “dangerous,” stressing that it is always possible to find similarities with other cultures.

Moody-Adams concluded the lecture portion by emphasizing that “no culture has a monopoly on the truth” and expressing hope for bridging cultural gulfs.

The next segment of the event invited questions for Moody-Adams from the audience. Matt Wong ’06, president of the Bioethics Society, engaged Moody-Adams in a discussion of her views on the feasibility of translating ideas about ethics into practical compromises. She said that while moral problems are not definitively “solvable,” it is still necessary to integrate and articulate different thoughts when reaching conclusions about bioethics.

Prof. Joe Regenstein, food science, asked Moody-Adams “at what point the government [should] be injecting its view” on such matters. Moody-Adams answered that while the necessity for laws may seem “undesirable,” they are “the only way to guarantee equal treatment.”

Moody-Adams concluded by re-emphasizing the importance of open discussion and compromise, saying that “the best moral inquiry requires an imaginative reinterpretation of what really matters.”

The Bioethics Society of Cornell meets every Monday in 119 Stimson Hall. The next installment of their lecture series, on Feb. 6, will feature Prof. Rita Calvo, molecular biology and genetics on “The Future of Stem Cell Research.”

Archived article by Christine Ryu
Sun Staff Writer