Pondering the Ethics of Progress

By Grant Martin

2009_ethicsImagine you are the president of a company that has developed two tissue-engineered pediatric heart valves. The first is incredibly safe and efficient, but it is also prohibitively expensive. The second is far cheaper and therefore could be widely distributed. But it is less reliable, and patients who use it have a higher mortality rate. Which one would you choose to make?

When W. David Merryman, Ph.D., posed this question to his fellow engineering students as part of a graduate course project, they voted to distribute the best possible product—choosing the more expensive model even though it meant excluding tens of thousands of needy children.

The Future in the Balance

Now the UAB biomedical engineer is preparing a host of similar ethical conundrums for students in the University Honors Program. Beginning in spring 2009, a small group of students will examine the tough questions brought on by decades of startling medical and technological advances, from reproductive cloning to nanotechnology to the sequencing of the human genome. Often, says Merryman, it is years before the ethical problems brought on by these advances are adequately considered.

“The idea behind this class is to give undergraduate students a primer on moral philosophy,” says Merryman. “An honors class is the perfect place to do this because you have intelligent, motivated students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines.”

Merryman is convinced this diversity will generate a wide range of discussions and perspectives. “It’s going to be interesting because we will have people who are engineers and are used to looking at definite facts with clear boundaries, but we’ll also have people whose interest is in business, philosophy, music, or art,” he says. In keeping with this variety of interests, issues explored in the class will go beyond technology into areas such as business and environmental ethics, among others.

“The limits really will depend on the interests of the students,” Merryman says. “There are ethical questions in information technology with government IDs, for example, or in hospital administration: Do I cut funding from the children’s wing or the geriatrics? Those are the kinds of issues I want to explore.”

Merryman’s interest in these problems was sparked when he spent a year abroad as an undergraduate, studying religious philosophy at Swansea University in Wales. But it was the pediatric heart valve problem he created as a graduate student that underscored the importance of pondering difficult questions before they are encountered in the heat of the real world.

“These students will one day be leaders in their fields, and they will have to make tough decisions,” says Merryman. “I hope this course will help them to envision the possible situations and determine which factors should be weighed most heavily when making those decisions.”

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