So much of the fate of our planet, the human race, and all of God’s creatures depends on humans having an objective, causal understanding of the pressing problems we face and then, on that basis, developing some reasonably effective practical means by which those threats can be ameliorated—it’s called, using human intelligence and being connected to reality, at least reality with a small “r”, as in empirical reality. Just think of the causes of threats such as climate change, transmittable diseases and drug resistant viruses, gun violence, drug abuse, hunger, unemployment, poverty, lack of healthcare coverage, and on and on. Without reasonably sound knowledge of the causes of these threat humans are rendered helpless and vulnerable. And even with sound knowledge, without a practical, yes political, means, in the form of sound public policy, of collective action, to ameliorate them, we are cannot take meaningful action, and are still rendered helpless and vulnerable. Currently, in the United States there is vast disagreement not only over how best to formulate policy solutions to some our most pressing problems, there is often no agreement over how to understand the problem or even whether or not a problem exists. Climate change and gun control are two prominent examples.
The fact that climate change is real and greatly accelerated by human activity is a fact about which there is clear scientific evidence. Practically all scientific societies, science academies, and governmental and intergovernmental agencies, are in complete agreement, which means the evidence for this empirical claim being true is about as compelling as anything we know about the natural phenomena. So when we see reports on the news about rising sea levels and temperatures, stronger and more intense weather, droughts and heat waves, melting artic ice that is expected to soon be open water, etc. etc. some still say, these effects are simply the result of many natural changes in weather or that there really isn’t a consensus since 2 – 3% of scientists don’t accept the dominant explanation, among many other reasons for these effects. Whereas the vast majority of scientists see these effects as a function of a catastrophic, human caused problem, not an insignificant number of Americans remain either deniers or skeptics. Thus, to the latter group, there really isn’t a problem that can in principle be addressed by humans in the political process. But those against policies to address climate change also include some who accept the claim that human activity is having a deleterious effect on the planet; their objection is that effective policies would require more government regulations, which they see as onerous as the effects of climate change. Human beings on planet earth then left vulnerable to an urgent, mortal threat that is either not perceived or ignored because there is no viable way to address it.
Gun violence is a similar issue in terms of how it is understood in public discourse. In the United States about there are about 93 people killed each day by guns, of which over 30 homicides, 57 are suicides, and about 7 of these deaths are children or teens. There is no other developed country in the world with even remotely similar gun violence numbers. Many of us look at these data and are alarmed; we see the prevalence of gun ownership, especially assault weapons, as concerning and in need of more effective regulation. Others believe the problems can be accounted for by mental illness not the prevalence guns, in spite the evidence to the contrary.
Moreover, it is common to hear some say after a tragic shooting in which lives were lost: the solution is to make sure more people are armed. As Wayne LaPierre of the NRA said, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Those who study gun ownership know based on scientific research that just owning a gun increasing the risk of death for both the owner and those around him or her—very few gun deaths are from legitimate self-defense, yet “it is telling that through the successful lobbying efforts of the NRA, Congress has blocked further data collection on gun ownership and violence.” More data would elucidate the problem and the apparent solutions, e.g. background checks and eliminating assault weapons. But those who prioritize expansive gun ownership right oppose to such policy changes, and are not willing to allow any evidence to their position to be funded or considered in public policy discussions; it seems clear they would rather continue to live with the current number of gun deaths each year than to face additional gun regulations. Again, we left with a serious threat to our daily lives and no viable, common way either to understand the problem or to address it as a policy matter.
In a democratic setting those of us in bioethics simply cannot critically assess and determine our obligations to each other, our families and communities, and to global wellbeing, without sound empirical evidence of causal relationships and the potential harms and benefits resulting from human actors within their environment, whether it be in the context of global warming or clinical ethics consultation. Unless of course one assumes that ethical obligations are formulated a priori apart from scientific data and human experience. Sadly, in my judgment, this is where we are in the United States and much of the West—a crisis in both how we understand the world through scientific inquiry vs. alternative views such as religion and how we understand our obligations and formulate sound public policy, and indeed, how we understand ethics. This is a crisis that risks rendering ethics literally useless since it is no longer a practical activity, and leaves human beings helpless to find better ways to adapt to our existential threats and challenges. This is the crisis of our era.
How can we foster dialogue between people and groups, from what appears to be, with fundamentally different perceptions and understandings of the world and how we should relate to it? Can we begin new conversations with civility and respect? Can we build bridges and find more common ground? I’m not sure, but we have no choice but to try.