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Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.

In late September this year a conference in Oslo threw doubt on the idea of a steady increase in interest, and work, in bioethics in the old Soviet empire. Totalitarianism appeared once more to be raising its ugly head.

The conference was funded by the Norwegian government and involved mainly Scandinavians and East Europeans. It was extremely well-organized and produced fascinating discussions, but also some major surprises. We heard old-fashioned, hard-line, Communist views. A former East German professor, for instance, gave a lecture on the importance of Marxism as the basis of moral philosophy, prompting other East European participants to remark that it was over twenty years since they had last heard such a performance.

Evidence of a different sort of totalitarianism came from Poland and Slovakia, both of which are becoming theocracies. In Poland, abortion is now virtually banned, the code of medical ethics[1] shows strong Catholic influence, non-Catholics in universities find increasing difficulty in having posts renewed, and pressure is put on medical students to attend lectures on only Christian medical ethics. The Slovakian institute of bioethics in Bratislava has helped to run two enormous pro-life events in the last two years and is funded by the Roman Catholic church.

The paper that most aroused the Oslo audience, however, was read by Zbigniew Szawarski. A former professor of medical ethics in Warsaw who has lived under two totalitarian regimes (the Nazi and the Soviet), Szawarski compared the ethos of science in the Western tradition and in the Soviet empire. In the Western tradition the principal values of science are truth; the freedoms of communication, of access to literature, of travel, and of choice in research; universalism and solidarity; objectivism and impartiality; autonomy and responsibility. The Soviet revolution, however, had a dramatic effect on the ethos of science, bringing the term "Soviet Science" into common usage. Its characteristics were nationalism, the use of ideology as the basis of science, conformity to authority and the principle of political loyalty, and an incredibly complicated bureaucracy. While there had been some variation from such a picture, in medical research there were still virtually no public controls on investigators.[2]

An unexpected response to this paper came from some younger East Europeans, whose political awareness had not developed before the early 1980s. They felt it was too negative about Soviet science. Many of those aged over forty, however, suggested the opposite: that Szawarski had been too polite.

A thoroughly old-fashioned response came from the head of the Russian delegation (Russia was the only country to send a delegation; from other countries came individuals happy to mingle). The head of the Russian delegation, Ivan T. Frolov, is a philosopher of science and party ideologue who joined the Communist Party in 1960. He used his position at the Academy of Sciences to climb the party ladder, achieving the ultimate accolade of membership in Gorbachev's Politburo just before the Communist Party was disbanded. He spent his allotted time attacking Szawarski's view. By the 1960s, he claimed, Soviet scientists were struggling to overcome ideological constraints, but he gave no examples. He said that he was having to "defend a position against which [he] was struggling all [his] life," and that he had written a book on values and science.[3]

His book consists of summaries of what others have written, linked by paragraphs such as: "All this produces new discussion. But the major factor is a clear awareness of the need for further positive studies of the evolutionary-genetic prerequisites of man's ethical qualities on the basis of a Marxist understanding of man's social essence and with due consideration of the dialectics of social and biological factors" (p. 168).

I mention Academician Frolov because he is chairman of the organizing committee of next year's XIXth World Congress of Philosophy, to be held in Moscow in August. One of the other two members of the committee was with him in Oslo. Neither gave any indication that they knew how to conduct open, academic discussion. Both their talks were devoid of content. Moreover, the Russian delegation included none of those doing interesting and serious work in bioethics in Moscow. Given that the World Congress is a financial rip-off (the cheapest hotel on offer is $1000 for a week, but you can stay in a university hostel for $40 per night; these are smelly, cockroach-infested dormitories with completely inadequate sanitation), it will surely be no paradise lost. The only sensible response for Western philosophers would seem to be a complete boycott of it.


1. "Polish Code of Medical Ethics," Bulletin of Medical Ethics, no. 82, 1992.

2. Zbigniew Szawarski, "Research Ethics in Eastern Europe," Bulletin of Medical Ethics, no. 82, 1992.

3. Ivan T. Frolov, Man - Science - Humanism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1986). Available in U.S. from Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y.
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Title Annotation:bioethics in Russia; Old World News
Author:Nicholson, Richard H.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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