Does Technology Help Us Be More Ethical?

By Kyle Munkittrick | October 7, 2010 2:11 pm

I DISAPPROVE WILL ROBINSON, I DISAPPROVERonald Bailey over at Reason Magazine has noticed a trend. When a new technology comes out, particularly if it impacts birth or death, people have a very powerful initial reaction: “Yuck!” However, within a few years, that “yuck” quickly shifts to “yippie!” A perfect example is Robert Edwards accepting the Nobel Prize in Physiology for developing the first successful in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques with his colleague, Patrick Steptoe, in 1978. Everyone knew IVF was a huge breakthrough at the time; everyone also freaked out at the idea. The scientific community took another 30 years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown to approve of IVF enough to award Edwards and Steptoe with the prize they so clearly deserved.

In an unrelated, but completely relevant article, the Washington Post’s Kwame Anthony Appiah triggered a debate over moral progress and history with his recent “What will future generations condemn us for?” His guesses are that our prison system, the industrial meat complex, elderly care, and environmental damage will bring the most intense “how could they do that?” from history students. Will Wilkinson adds that nation-states dividing up the world with their borders, tariffs, and limits on freedom of movement will look pretty awful to citizens of the next century. Tyler Cowen (who teaches at my alma matter) tried to figure out what we might condemn future generations for, worrying that torture, pre-emptive war, and anti-gay sentiment may make a comeback. What is going to help determine whether we’re moving towards utopia or dystopia?

The most interesting twist on Appiah’s original idea, and a potential answer to my query, comes from conservative op-ed writer Ross Douthat at the New York Times. Douthat’s eye-grabbing point is that technology itself helps to drive our moral shifts, in that often a new technology is able to disconnect two things that were once inextricable:

“Note, though, that I’m envisioning a technological leap as the catalyst for this shift. It’s true that deterministic arguments can go too far, and that human agency matters enormously to moral change … but it’s still the case that technological and economic trends play an enormous role in determining which moral arguments gain ground, which achieve dominance, and which slip toward eccentricity. The cotton gin launched a thousand pro-slavery polemics. The birth control pill convinced millions of people that the old moral consensus on sex and marriage was outdated and even absurd.”

Just which taboos will become tolerable in the future based on technology is, I think, grist for another post. What is worth discussing now is how technology enables these sea changes in our moral thinking. Bailey’s “yuck-to-yippie” thesis dovetails nicely with Douthat’s “tech can drive moral change” thesis. Let’s imagine a new example: designer babies. We first hear about a brand new technology and everybody from religious leaders to scientific experts to your grandmother stands up and denounces it—“Yuck!” says Grandma; “Eugenics will bring back Hitler armies!” says the politician who has no grasp of science (a redundant statement, I know); “God doesn’t approve!” says the Vatican; “all people will all be the same!” says the worried science philosopher. “The genetic engineering of people could have lots of things go wrong with it, and it’s just unnatural, so we probably shouldn’t do it,” says the general consensus.

But that breakthrough in genetic engineering technology doesn’t just go away. The knowledge, the scientific understanding, the ability to make designer babies, is now here, nagging at the back of everyone’s brain. Despite loud, angry protests, the FDA rigorously tests the process and a few babies are born using trait-selection techniques. Just as with IVF, the babies are shown to be as healthy as babies born without assistive reproductive technologies. Normalized and routine, thousands of children are able to be born free of genetic diseases. Twenty years after the fact, the research team that first successfully cloned a human being is finally given the Nobel Prize.

That little scenario describes Bailey’s trend, but what about Douthat’s social change? Consider the following: at our current point in history, no matter how one reproduces, good genes are still mixed in with bad ones. Even the healthiest couples could pass on genes that would make their child susceptible to high cholesterol, cancer, schizophrenia, depression, or whatever other diseases there are waiting to be triggered by the genetic demons perching in the family tree. Then, as described above, a process is developed that allows you to select only the healthiest genes from the mother and father when “designing” a new child. In a world where one can easily prevent a litany of genetic diseases and disorders, how would you look back on a society that paid no attention to the genetic health of the child? Would you consider it moral to leave a child’s genetic outlook to chance?

My argument is that technology can actually create new ethical problems and moral decisions because it allows events that were once impossible. In the case of vat grown meat, tech allows us to have our happy cows and eat them too, making our being moral all the easier. In the case of designer babies, tech gives us a big heaping batch of new problems to fret and argue over.

Original image via aussiegall on Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Philosophy, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Morality

Comments (8)

  1. Sam

    I would argue that genetic design may mean removal of genes, which could fundamentally alter the future of one’s being. As it is often proven to be the case, we discover that what we once thought was bad for us was actually good, and lack thereof has serious ramifications. I am afraid that this sort of natural growth and learning will have an effect on the matter of engineered babies, and we should all be cognizant of this. Obviously, this issue is altogether outside of the moral debate, where the question will no doubt become: “How far do we go, and what stops us from engineering better musculatures, stronger bones, and other features, which may result in eventual and rapid mutation of the human species?”

  2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Sure technology will train us in moral decision making. (Ethics is formalized morals, and may be useful for legal consistency.) I would argue that since reactive morality is evolved into animals, we won’t become more consistently moral. But our society may be.

    “the industrial meat complex … vat grown meat, tech allows us to have our happy cows and eat them too”

    Bar a definition of “the industrial meat complex”: modern effective husbandry was a moral necessity, since we couldn’t be 100 % vegetarians earlier any more than we can be 100 % meat eaters today, due to lack of resources.

    Vat meat is a moral problem. Animals happen to come with handy and efficient immune systems (and still benefit from antibiotics). Vat meat will take the current antibiotic problem out of all proportion, using a nutrient feed with massive amounts of antibiotics. (Since it will be much costlier to have sterile vats and throw away the moldy batches.)

    Alas, eventually we will be forced to go that way, as we once was forced into adopting modern husbandry to survive. Let us hope the medico-political antibiotic market has got its act together at that time.

    @ Sam:

    “I would argue that genetic design may mean removal of genes”

    Yes, but genes that are assuredly non-beneficial in most any environment. Currently H. sapiens sapiens experiences selective drives as never before due to the increase in population, which makes selection of positive or negative fitness genes more efficient. (See for example John Hawks’ research.) That these changes fixate (i.e. for example non-beneficial alleles disappear from the population) is more an open question, but there is no reason to think not.

    The small increase in removal from the proposed gene techniques would be minuscule, AFAIU. Also, the constraint on evolutionary rate is a balance between population allele supply, selection pressures and population size. I’m not sure what is the current constraint.

    “may result in eventual and rapid mutation of the human species”

    Individual genes may mutate, in fact each of us contains ~ 150 mutations due to copy errors. (Long predicted from individual sites mutation rates, recently confirmed by sequencing (IIRC).)

    Populations don’t “mutate”, they evolve. But see above, similarly to individuals mutating all the time, populations evolve all the time. Very few species are in evolutionary stasis, and in fact humans among the ones that evolve fastest.

  3. Alex

    Personally I welcome the advent of self direction in the genetic arena. If we can save ourselves or our children from suffering from disease then its going to happen and no one will be able to stop it. I for one would consider anyone trying to deny me that prerogative a threat and would take corresponding action. As far as the more cosmetic changes that will become available, I am sure that these will not lead to everyone looking the same since we are all individuals and like different things, and even if we did tailor ourselves after our role models who cares. So picture ID’s become absolete, big deal. It just means we’ll have to identify ourselves to eachother with brain wave scan ID’s or something else that will always make us different from one another. Eugenics is not the boogyman, its people being pushed too far until they snap. Eugenics can’t be achieved the same way Utopia can’t be achieved, because the parameters always change and no two people will ever be satisfied with the same solution. Nay sayers just don’t give us enough credit and probably just aren’t comfortable with change. Well to them I say, change is a constant but its rarly transformational, its usually slow and incremental. Or do you honestly think that an amazonian indian and a rich new yorker will have or want access to this technology at the same time? It’ll be incremental and we’ll have to time to get used to the idea. I for one am an early adopter and will jump at the chance but we only constitue about 15-25% tops of the population at any given time. So I say sign me up, watch what happens and then decide. Either way we’re all free to choose for ourselves and our children, or should be.

  4. Vincent Archer

    “Then, as described above, a process is developed that allows you to select only the healthiest genes from the mother and father when “designing” a new child. ”

    Define “healthiest” genes, and I’ll be with you.

    That’s the problem. Aside from fear-of-the-unknown knee-jerks reactions, the biggest problem facing genetical engineering is “what constitutes a bad gene?” “what constitutes a good gene?”.

    There’s a number of genes for which this answer is relatively straightforward – on the surface. There’s a number of genes though which are ambiguous. They have good and bad stuff. The usual poster child is sickle-cell anemia; there’s a gene that’s prevalent in tropical africa population that gives you better malaria resistance and worse blood pressure. The gene thrives because its benefits outstrip the negative.

    There was a recent study on a number of gene variants, linked with a form of diabetes which affects children. Bad, bad, bad, you say. But those gene variants seem to be on the rise in developped countries. It turns out that a number of these variants provide ancillary benefits. And our environment now features medication, which suppress the diabetes problems, and let the children grow and live: the bad genes no longer have bad consequences, and thus, the good bits can be useful.

    There’s going to be plenty of those ambiguous genes. Good mixed with bad. Your high cholesterol gene protects you against testicular cancer – choose which fate befalls your child…

    Then, we move from eugenics to engineering. We’re all bi-chimera: We have genes coming from two parents. What happens though when the parents have both bad genes. We’re going to bring in a third parent with good genes. Our child is going to have three genetic parents. But once we do that, why stop? If you don’t have any of the interesting genes to contribute, why don’t you select them from a gene bank. Build a complete genetic profile to order.

    At this point, being a parent becomes a very different thing than from the past. Because you’re no longer birthing random lottery winners: you’re all adopting a child that’s a very distant relative from you.

  5. That technology changes people’s concept of morality is clear. IVF gets invented. People react “Yuck.” Then people accept it. Now it is seen as ok.

    Whether the technology-driven concepts of right and wrong have a clearer understanding of right and wrong is another question, raised by the title of this article but not answered. The perspective of the article seems to accept a priori that things people initially react negatively to are inherently ethical, and that technology merely provides the occasion for seeing the inherent goodness of the things. The argument, though, is one of ethics being defined by popularity and honors.

    However, the general acceptance of a technology does not make it good or right. The putative good goals and even proven results do not justify the means to attain them, as there may be other means if scientists are clever enough to find them. The awarding of honors and the ridicule of naysayers add nothing to the argument. The reduction of human life to a utilitarian manufacturing process, the reduction of human offspring to the ethical equivalent of picking options on a car, will always be unethical. It may become widely acceptable. It may eliminate this or that disease, even if another disease doesn’t result or emerge. The pioneers of these technologies may win Nobel Prizes. People of the future may laugh at people like me for making these points.

    So how does all that make something to be ethical?


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