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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Qu’est-ce que la personne humaine? Bioéthique et démocratie

by Isabelle Lorand

Lucien Sève: Research, Science and Progress in the Light of the ‘Person’ - a book-review

Patrick Bolland

Translated Thursday 13 July 2006, by Patrick Bolland

Qu’est-ce que la personne humaine? Bioéthique et démocratie (What makes us Human Persons? Bioethics and Democracy), by Lucien Sève, Éditions La Dispute, 2006, 160 pages, 11 euros.

Lucien Sève, who was for nearly 20 years (1983-2000) a member of the French Comité consultatif national d’éthique (National Consultative Committee on Ethics) offers us a new way of looking at the stakes in the field of bioethics. More precisely, he encourages us to go beyond the usual debate between obscurantism and scientism, conservatism and liberalism, religious doctrines and and those who see no place for religion in the debate. He does this by discussing the importance of making enlightened ethical choices.

While clearly adopting a position supporting progress, this philosopher reminds us that science is not naturally beneficial, that risk is part and parcel of scientific research. The real debate by the citizenry has to put into question the consequences of science for each of us and for human rights in in their totality. More generally, Lucien Sève’s book is an invaluable tool for understanding the stakes in scientific research and scientific progress: from nuclear power to genetic manipulation, from bioethics to nanotechnologies.

The choice is ethical because society has to makes choices. Between the dead-end of the “slippery slope” argument, of the principle of always being hyper-cautious, meaning rejecting any element of risk - which is fundamental to all human activity - and the argument that irresponsible outcomes are always possible (or worse: they are often profitable), so let’s get on with doing science, Lucien Sève offers an invitation to everyone in our society, alongside other citizens, to seek the ways and conditions of reducing the risks to the minimum. Stem cells are one innovation harbouring hope in the struggle against disease. Can we obtain these cells in ways that are less dangerous than embryonic cloning? If so, we need to choose this way. Can we do without nuclear power, without aggravating the greenhouse effect and destruction of the ozone layer? If we can’t, then we should keep the nuclear option and find ways of increasing its safety, and do more research on treating radio-active waste.

The choice is also ethical because it has to respect the person. Once again, we have to agree on the meaning of this term, “the person”. Lucien Sève acts as our guide on a remarkable voyage, to the very heart of who we are, of our humanity, of what he calls “the personal order” (l’ordre personnel). The whole history of humanity is inscribed in each of us. The person cannot be reduced to a biological organism and exists already subjectively before being conceived, and continues to exist beyond death. Yet, the person should not be considered as an abstraction.
When a baby rat comes into the world, it enters the same world as its prehistoric ancestor. When a human baby is born, he or she is immediately immersed in a world that incorporates the history and acts of humanity, that consists of pro-social behaviour like donating blood, the social security system, solidarity - or barbaric behaviour such as the survival of the fittest, the sale of human organs or the immoral “golden parachutes” of company bosses.

An ethical choice also because it is free of self-serving vanities. The choice cannot be justified if we put humanity at risk, nor if we increase the risks as was the case in the contaminated blood scandal in France - all of which raises the whole question of “public services” and how they should be managed.

An enlightened choice finally because it heralds the emergency of a new form of democratic citzenry. Because these choices determine our collective future, they must be made democratically.

This is why the role of scientific experts should be to help all members of society to grasp and become part of the decision-making process. This was the aspiration of Professor Jean Bernard’s, for many years the head of the National Consultative Committee on Ethics. Not only for citizens to become instrumental in the decision-making, but to practise “science with a true sense of conscience”.

[Translator’s note:] Isabelle Lorand, the author of this book-review, is a surgeon and founder of the PCF Commission on Bioethics. Lucien Sève is the author of numerous works on ethics, particularly on rereading Marx in the light of modern life, and a leading French philosopher. He is most famous in the English-speaking world for his “Man in Marxist Theory and the psychology of personality”, published by The Harvester Press, 1978. The National Consultative Committee on Ethics (CNEE) is a unique institution, founded in the early days of the Mitterand government (1982), consisting of representatives of numerous sectors, acting as a rigorously independent think-tank to make recommendations on the ethics of scientific research. For nearly 20 years, Lucien Sève was the “philophical voice” on the committee.

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