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Guest Post: New Tools for Bioethics Education and Public Engagement

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Written by Johann Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

How should bioethical discussion be? The academic debate entails a tension between different parties, which often are difficult to compare. To mention some, for example, some draw from the tradition of liberal consequentialism and demand for rationalism and the avoidance of lofty moral arguments. Others descend from the teleological and communitarian tradition, emphasizing that the moral issues ought to be holistically confronted in their complexity, accepting that they cannot be analyzed in logical, reasonable fragments[1].

The tension becomes even more difficult when we concern not only the academic debate but also public engagement and discussion. Can we demand that public discussion be only based on rational and logical thoughts, and escape emotion and more “lofty” moral issues? I think the answer is that it cannot, and great ideas for trying to popularize bioethics are necessary. One of these new tools is “Playing God: The Rock Opera”, created by Finnish bioethicists Tuija Takala and Matti Häyry.

Playing God tells the story of a fictional small town whose inhabitants have enjoyed the benefits of gene technology for decades. The topics covered include designer babies, immortality treatments, savior siblings, cloning and gene therapy, and the commercializing of these technologies. Many bioethical topics are difficult to discuss because they are hypothetical and no one knows how it actually would feel to be a designer baby or to have one, or have immortality treatments. Maybe there is nothing to feel, or maybe there is a lot to feel – the rock opera does not try to give normative answers to any questions, but create an imaginary infrastructure to think about feelings or parental choices, perfection and identity.

Currently Playing God exists in CD format and the opera has been performed in Finland, Switzerland, and USA. The US premiere hosted by Weill Cornell Clinical and Translational Science Center was last month, April 23, and was presented in New York, Manhattan. There was a show also at Yale University.

Stepping out from the academic discussion creates the opportunity to have more freedom in concerning the potential negative and positive effects that medical technology could bring to individuals, communities, and societies. It is also important to notice that if we really want public engagement to bioethical discussions, different ethical discourses must be tolerated and not only require strict rationality. If “the public” has emotions, they must be taken seriously. Taking seriously does not necessarily mean that we ought to let emotions guide our decisions, but nevertheless there should be room also for lofty moral arguments.


More information on “Playing God: The Rock Opera” with review, story line, and great pictures:

[1] These discourses are analysed in Häyry, Matti (2010): Rationality and the Genetic Challenge. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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