Wow. A powerful piece from David Mills at First Things on some horrific medical experiments — in the interest of finding a cure to Syphilis — and on the moral quandary they pose for your average relativist bioethicist:
What makes what Cutler did so wrong? The members of the commission pointed almost uniformly to his failure to get the informed consent of his subjects, but what makes experimenting on people without getting their informed consent wrong? What is the ground of the developed ethical system for experimenting on human beings—a system developed through the Nuremberg trials—that the commission invoked in condemning Cutler’s work?
That is the difficult, and for the modern mainstream ethicist with certain commitments, the dangerous question. The answer would seem to be an understanding of intrinsic human dignity and the absolute integrity of the human person: that men and women are creatures who must make such decisions for themselves. And that dignity is most secure when fixed in something transcendent, something eternal and ultimate. If it isn’t, men like Cutler will do what he did, for the greater good, as he (presumably) saw it then.
Cutler’s offense wasn’t just deceiving people but treating them as people who could justifiably be deceived. His sin wasn’t just using them as means but seeing them as means. They are ends, and there are some things we cannot do to creatures who are ends in themselves. Ever. For any reason, however good, however urgent.