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  • Reverend James Squire

Both Sides of the Bioethics of the Titan Dive Tragedy

We have already heard the Monday morning quarterbacking of the Titan Dive Tragedy which included the death of five people. Bioethics of Extreme Explorations is a field of Bioethics theory.

One of the innovations that I am proud of was the development of a Bioethics Program for Upper School Students at EA. Chair of Science, Crawford Hill, and I entered into a relationship with the Penn Center for Bioethics lead by Dr. Art Caplan. We took 24 faculty to Penn for a summer course. The basic format of the program at EA included hearing from an expert on a particular topic in bioethics which would be followed by groups of students who would discuss the thoughts of the speaker and attempt to solve a problem in bioethics that contained the topic that they heard addressed. AP Biology students and Ethics students were the group leaders. It was recognized across the nation as a prototype for other schools. Our speakers were not only experts in the field. Instead of talking about stem cells, we had the person who discovered them address our students. One of our speakers was Paul Wolpe who is presently at Emory University whose expertise includes the Bioethics of Extreme Explorations who addressed our students on that topic. He was the bioethicist for NASA.

Dr. Wolpe’s focus was on Space, but his ethical guidelines pertain to ocean exploration in general and have much to say about the tragedy of the Titan. Here is some of his thinking. I will both paraphrase and quote directly his ideas in a blended commentary with my thoughts.

One of the general mindsets of humanity is that we are curious by nature. We will always be exploring. Stockton Rush, who died in the Titan, was CEO of the company that developed the submersible said, “that explorers are by nature rule breakers.” By definition if you are exploring, you are entering a world that you don’t know. When someone was asked in an interview that I saw to describe Rush he indicated that he wasn’t “a risk taker but a risk maker.” His company was private, but if he worked for a government funded entity such as NASA, they would have never been permitted to dive with the Titan. Rush set his own guidelines and many professionals in his field said that they wouldn’t have gone on the dive.

One of the key ethical guidelines for NASA is “As Low (risk)As Reasonably Achievable.” Rush did not didn’t abide by that standard as he was trying out a new material to build the Titan that others didn’t think met this standard. He did not vet the Titan in a way that it would have been acceptable, I believe, to qualify for NASA. Others had made the same trip and were successful, but the ethical question was “did those trips weaken the hull.” The answer is “yes.” Acceptable risk is a hallmark of ethics. I have frequently referred to risk/cost/benefit/analysis. They were trying out a new material for the Titan that “did not stand the test of time”, another ethical standard. (It is interesting to note that Teflon came about as a material developed for space flight.)

Explorers’ risks should be directed to find new information that would help humanity. People should not explore for pure thrill. Mt. Everest had to be closed this year because the number of deaths by climbers who were going up for the thrill of it all. Bioethics would not support the work of Bezos who is doing his exploration to build a space business. Rush, on the other hand, felt that we were looking in the wrong place which was Space. He thought that there was more benefit to humankind by exploring the bottom of the ocean. What exploration would provide the most benefit for humanity and ecosystems becomes another basic question in bioethics. Certain explorations into the jungles of the world have caused the destruction of whole species.

I think that you will see ethical guidelines in the future for private companies to protect not only the explorer but also the people that they are leading. Currently there are no guidelines for private enterprises. But climbers up Everest have to qualify by climbing another Nepalese mountain of 26,000 feet. You can’t be over the age of 75.

There are three categories in ethics that I have mentioned before; beneficence, justice, and autonomy. Wolpe states it as follows regarding space travel which, I believe, applies to ocean exploration as well. “There are two reasons to engage in space travel (insert ocean exploration). One is scientific. We don’t want to send bacteria to Mars and then discover it and think that it is indigenous. The second is ethical. Citing the Office of Planetary Protection, Wolpe quotes the director, Jon Rummel: “I need to have a relationship with what we are exploring. It is hard to have a relationship with a rock, but you can have a relationship with a living ecosystem.”

We know if we are to advance civilization and our place in the world, it will involve exploration. We can’t be risk averse. For one thing, whether we like it or not, we are competitors on a world stage.

Perhaps that description offered up to describe Stockton Rush is most appropriate. We need to be risk managers and not risk takers. Bioethics of Extreme Environments will be instrumental in making sure as the Hippocratic Oath states,” First, do no harm!”

When doing the necessary exploration implies that you may be taking people to a place where they may not necessarily want to go. I think this applies to all leadership. One of my thoughts about leading others where they don’t want to go is to remember that there were many dinners and social gatherings that I had to attend as part of my role as Chaplain. There were times when, I must confess, I was not looking forward to the evening. But when I got there, I had the time of my life. Explorers know this too.

Let me offer an addendum regarding the press coverage of this tragedy. Jake Tapper of CNN asked an expert exactly how the people would die? I thought that was a terrible question. Did he not think that family and friends would be watching? Contrast that with the way a Newfoundland doctor responded to what it was like for the people in the submersible during those final moments. He said, “Because nitrogen would be increasing in their brain, it would be like being under anesthesia. It would be quick. They wouldn’t experience pain.” That response would be comforting to the family and friends. Ethics is the way a question is asked and answered. Always pretend the family, in such circumstances as these, is present when you provide an answer.

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