Posted on August 3, 2015 at 12:08 AM
Two notable things happened this past month that I feel
compelled to write about: NASA’s New
Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto; NASA engineer and manager Claudia
Alexander died of cancer. These events highlight some very powerful lessons
in bioethics, and indeed about the human condition itself.
Lesson #1: We can do
New Horizons is the first
spacecraft to visit Pluto, a mission taking almost ten years (or more, if
you count pre-launch), traveling over three
billion miles, and costing around seven-hundred
million dollars. It will be our first opportunity to truly investigate an
planet, and the information gleaned from it holds the potential to complete
much of our knowledge of the planetary types in our own solar system. Over
eighty years after its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto –
our final (local) planetary frontier – is within our grasp.
In medicine as well we find ourselves pushing boundaries. The
development and widespread use of vaccines and antibiotics in the past hundred
years have had remarkable impact on public
health and our ability to fend or fight off diseases. Medical, surgical,
and technological advances
in the 20th Century allow many of us to live
longer than previous generations, and they have enhanced our abilities to engage
interventions at the beginnings of a human life. Indeed with each passing year
in the world of medicine it seems that there is ever more that we are capable
Lesson #2: We can
only do so much.
Less than a week before New Horizon was performing its first
flyby of Pluto, respected space scientist and project manager/project
scientist on both the Galileo mission
and the Rosetta mission Claudia
Alexander passed away, succumbing to her ten-year battle with breast cancer. Despite
the fact that we have presumably been at war with cancer since 1971, it continues
to be one of the leading
causes of death worldwide, accounting for nearly one
in four deaths in the US alone. And if winning this war requires completely
eliminating cancer, then there is good reason to suspect that we
will not be victorious.
Similarly, even with all our marvels of medical prowess,
suggestions that we may be able to achieve an end
to illness or live
long enough to live forever seem rather suspect. The mere corporeality of
our nature would appear to place limits on how far we can stretch the
boundaries of human life and human health. The human creature remains a
creature, subject to the toils and ravages of time, age, disease and death. It
may be that the final medical-technological frontier we will choose to confront
will be our own humanity, and that the siren song of posthumanity
represents the swan song of these ailments that limit us. But the likelihood of
such a future remains to be seen, and until then, in the end, we can only do so
Lesson #3: Both of
these realities are beautiful.
In my experience a great many people want to rebel against
Lesson #2 above, sometimes even showcasing an almost Promethean desire to
perpetually extend human powers and possibilities (as a sort of hyper-extension
of Lesson #1). However I believe that both Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 are praiseworthy.
It may well be that as a philosopher I suffer from shades of Aristotle or Epictetus, but I place great
value on balance and the Golden mean,
virtue and right reason. To me there can be beauty both in our limits and human
frailties, and in our desires and efforts to rise above them.
There is also beauty in knowing how to face these two
realities. Claudia Alexander, it would seem, knew this beauty. She said, “In
the annals of history the athletes and musicians fade, but the ones who make
fundamental improvements in humankind’s way of life, and in their understanding
of the Universe, live on in their discoveries.” (Claudia Alexander, NASA
Profile) We can do so much: push the limits of human capabilities, add to
the bounty of human knowledge, and discover a great many amazing and useful
things. But in the end only the capabilities, bounty, and discoveries remain.
Viewed rightly, both of these realities are beautiful.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.