16.363 supping with a long spoon?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Wed Dec 04 2002 - 02:41:52 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 363.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Wed, 04 Dec 2002 07:34:39 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: supping with a long spoon

    Carl Elliott, in the "Diary" column(s) of the latest London Review of Books
    (24.23 28/11/02, pp. 36-7), gives a disturbing portrait of what can happen
    when a field of the humanities is applied in partnership with strong
    commercial interests. The field is bioethics, the commercial partners are
    the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

    After reviewing the strong evidence for bribery and influence-peddling (his
    terms), Elliott argues that, "Bioethicists are not supposed to be mere
    agents for their employers: they are expected to be moral critics as well."
    But, he notes, implicit in a recent report compiled by the American Society
    for Bioethics and Humanities and the American Society for Law, Medicine and
    Ethics -- whose presidents were then working for Geron Corporation
    (http://www.geron.com/) and DNA Sciences (http://www.dna.com/) -- "is a
    distinctive (though not altogether unexpected) view of what bioethics is,
    according to which bioethicists are not primarily scholars, teachers or
    clinicians but professional service providers in a market economy,
    advertising and selling ethics to paying customers." "It is possible to
    describe bioethics as a commodity in a market economy," Elliott continues,
    "and if the right social and institutional structures are developed, that
    it exactly what it will become. But would that development be good for
    anyone other than the bioethics entrepeneurs?.... The initial shock that
    many outsiders have expressed at the idea of ethics-for-hire comes partly
    from the sense that words like 'honour' or 'duty' stand on a different
    plane from phrases like 'advertising revenue', 'profit margins' and
    'consulting contract'. The point here is not to deplore the wickedness of
    the market, only to keep the market in its proper place." But how is that
    to be achieved?

    Of course few of us in humanities computing have any occasion to require
    the long spoon that a number of bioethicists seem to have left back in
    their philosophy departments. But the rhetoric by which teaching and
    research become service provision in a marketplace is not entirely
    unfamiliar either, and it doesn't come only from outside the academy. What
    is the attraction of such a notion for those within it? Might the root
    problem be a crisis of confidence in the academic professions? It does
    sometimes seem as if the old "mandate of heaven" (as the Chinese emperors
    used to call their basis of legitimacy) having crumbled, the academy is
    struggling to come up with a new one -- to reinvent itself as a social
    entity. Computing seems an obvious point of connection and so, at least
    potentially, a way of doing the humanities that bridges intra- and
    extramural worlds. Thus we enter the scene with talk of "transferrable
    skills" and the like -- but without the distracting temptations, at least
    for the moment. So we are in a very good position to work out in small what
    a productive (and indeed ethical) relationship between academic and
    non-academic worlds might be like.

    Comments -- particularly from those who are doing it?


    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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