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Ethical Modesty in the Face of New Challenges

June 29th, 2007 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Remember Terri Schiavo?

Like Schiavo, Jesse Ramirez, a gulf war veteran who was comatose as a result of a car accident, was slated to have his feeding tubes removed.  They were taken out for five days but then replaced when the Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-life organization in Arizona, sued.

On Tuesday, he “was found to have regained complete consciousness.”

This remarkable turnaround reminds us that perhaps the chief virtue of the ethical decision maker is modesty, a virtue that has more applications than clothing.  Because doctors in these situations are deciding between life and death, it seems there ought be a prima facie position in favor of keeping the patient alive.  Such a position is more modest and more restrained, it seems, than the alternative, as it acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge not only of the future, but of human personhood.
These sort of ethical dilemmas are only increasing, which increases the need for such modesty.  Science is advancing into new ethical terrain all the time.  Consider the chimeras, fusions of humans and animals that William Saletan wrote about recently.  Or the technologizing of humanity, which is so helpfully described in this BBC documentary.  In both areas, science is operating without guidelines that are clear and well defined. Because of the high stakes, it seems a judicious restraint is essential, at least until such guidelines can be established.

Of course, we do not live in a culture that values modesty.  Whether it is clothing, religion, or technology, we lack the caution that is befitting our limited perspectives and positions.

What does modesty look like in bioethics?  I’m not sure, but the weight of such decisions demands a restraint greater than the medical and scientific communities seem to be demonstrating.  After all, more lives like Jesse Ramirez’s hang in the balance.