Another Controversial “We Can, But Ought We?” Issue

A few days ago I posted links to two pieces that raised the question of whether we ought do what new technologies may soon allow us to do. Both of those case, interestingly, revolved around matters of time. One explored the possibility of erasing memories and the other discussed the possibility of harnessing the predictive power of processing massive amounts of data. The former touched on our relationship to the past, the latter on our relationship to the future.

A recent article in Canada’s The Globe and Mail tackles the thorny questions surrounding genetic screening and selection. Here’s the set up:

Just as Paracelsus wrote that his recipe worked best if done in secret, modern science is quietly handing humanity something the quirky Renaissance scholar could only imagine: the capacity to harness our own evolution. We now have the potential to banish the genes that kill us, that make us susceptible to cancer, heart disease, depression, addictions and obesity, and to select those that may make us healthier, stronger, more intelligent.

The question is, should we?

That is the question. As you might imagine, there are vocal advocates and critics. I’ve steered clear of directly addressing issues related to reproductive technologies because I am not trained as a bioethicist. But these are critical issues and the vast majority of those who will make real-world decisions related to the possibilities opened up by new bio-genetic technologies will have no formal training in bioethics either. It’s best we all start thinking about these questions.

According to one of the doctors cited in the article, “We are not going to slow the technology, so the question is, how do we use it?” He added, “Twenty years from now, you have to wonder if all babies will be conceived by IVF.”

Of course, it is worth considering what is assumed when someone claims that we are not going to slow down the technology. But as is usually the case, the technical capabilities are outstripping the ethical debate — at least, the sort of public debate that could theoretically shape the social consensus.

About three paragraphs into the article, I began thinking about the film Gattaca which I’ve long considered an excellent reflection on the kinds of issues involved in genetic screening. Two or three more paragraphs into the article, then, I was pleased to see the film mentioned. I’ve suggested before (here and here) that stories are often our best vehicles for ethical reflection, they make abstract arguments concrete. For example, one of the best critiques of utilitarianism that I have read was Ursula le Guin’s short story, “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Gattaca is a story that serves a similar function in relation to genetic screening and selection.  I’d recommend checking the movie out if you haven’t seen it.

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