Monday, December 21, 2020

Anonymous Asks (124)

“I have to write an essay for my university class on the Christian view of a technology. The topic that I choose is regarding genetic engineering and how we as a Christians view it.

So, some background information:

Genetic engineering is a procedure that could be done pre-natal (meaning before birth or during embryogenesis) or post-natal (on adults the procedure is called ‘gene therapy’).

The argument revolved around the question is whether this is allowed or not because ethically it’s as if we’re playing god.

I’ve asked my pastor about this some other time and he said that it’s allowed but only for medical purposes, not to change one’s aesthetics or to make someone racially superior.”

That’s an interesting question.

Your pastor is trying to answer at the third level of ethics, the “applied” level. That’s very hard to do accurately, because there are prior problems he’s not even thinking about yet. In my answer, I’m going to suggest things that as a pastor he is unlikely to think about, but which as an ethicist who is also a Christian, I’ve had to think about quite a bit already.

Like so many questions that involve new technologies and interventions, we know the Bible will not explicitly mention it. So it is all the more important that we get our principles right, because there’s no very obvious answer available to us.

Two Views

In a general way, we could start with this thought: that there are two views of technology, from a Christian ethical perspective. Some people think technology is neutral (adiaphora is the Greek word for such things). That means that whether they are good or evil depends entirely on the use to which we put them. A knife in the hands of a gangster is a weapon, but in the hands of a surgeon it’s a healing tool. So a knife, we might say, is neither good nor evil; it’s the person who uses it who determines the good or evil that ensues. It’s a case of adiaphora.

Against that we should propose a more careful and, I think, wise view of technology. For while it is true that some technologies may seem neutral, not all are. The late Neil Postman very perceptively wrote, “To a boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We might add that to a girl with a computer, everything looks like data. To a kid with a slingshot, everything looks like a target. And so on. Some technologies “dictate” their own ends ... and some of those ends are inevitably evil.

A Mind of Its Own

This is because technologies always tend toward their most efficient use. This means that you can start out thinking that your technology will be only used for one thing, and that thing will be good; but the technology has a sort of “direction” in which it will function more smoothly, more efficiently, and achieve more, and it will always tend to draw you in that direction.

Add to that a famous saying by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the guy who invented the atomic bomb. He once said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” So the people who are inventing new technologies are not the ethicists; a guy like Oppenheimer doesn’t even think it’s his job to ask whether what he’s inventing is good or bad ... he just invents it, and leaves the ethical worrying to people like you and me, who have to figure it out after-the-fact, when the technology already exists.

Afterthought Ethics

That is how it is with gene splicing. Neither you nor I invented it. We were not consulted. Nor was any ethicist. So the technology existed before we had any ethical say. And now that it’s already here, we have to figure out how to limit its uses to the good; only it won’t “stay put” for us to do that. Rather, it will migrate toward its “technically sweet” uses, whatever they may be, good or bad. Technologies are like that: they do not sit still for our ethical reflections, but keep getting used in all the ways their structure makes it efficient to use them, regardless of our ethical deliberations.

Let me give you the best example I can think of: the internet. Its creators had two specific good uses in mind: the rapid, secure exchange of national security information, and the rapid exchange of medical information. That’s why the thing was created. But let me ask you this: is that what the internet has come to be used for? Is it used in a nice, limited way for high-value secure information? Or has it become a “wild west” of all kinds of information? In fact, judged by the volume of traffic on it, the internet is the world’s largest and most efficient system ever built for the delivery of advertising and pornography.

How has that happened? It’s because the structure of the internet is such that it maximized the opportunity for the spread of all kinds of information, regardless of whether that information was good or evil. And mankind, being fallen in nature and much inclined to evil, has been drawn along with that power, and has let it maximize evil information.

Of course, that’s not to say that good information doesn’t still flow on the internet. I hope, for example, that our conversation is pleasant, Christian and wholesome. But it is to say that when we design something, we don’t know what it is going to do to us, beyond the things we can already imagine. We know what we THINK our technology will end up doing; we do not know what it WILL end up doing.

Gene Therapy

So back to your problem: what are we to think of gene therapy? My suggestion would be this: that we do not know what gene therapy will be used for. Our imaginations, for good or for evil, are probably not yet capable of showing us all the things this technology will do. But we do know it will vastly increase human power. And we know that so long as human power is not under the control of God, there will be some danger, and that the danger will be bigger the more potential the technology has.

In order to answer the question, then, we need to do two things: firstly, to imagine all the options we CAN already imagine, pushing our imagination to its absolute limits. We need to ask, what are the best things the technology could be used for, but also what are the worst things it could be used for, because I suspect it will be used for all of each. Technologies, once invented, get used. And no ethicist, no board of ethics, and no kind of protective legislation seems to have the power to prevent abuses. Eventually, technology always gets used for its full range of applications; and always, always tends to its most efficient uses, whether they are good or evil.

The upshot is this: the control point of technology is not in the technology itself; it’s in human beings. And so long as human beings are evil, technology will be used for evil. That’s why ethical problems are not located in practical applications, but rather in spiritual ones. There is simply no substitute for mankind being in relationship with God; and no secular ethics will ever secure us against what our technologies are going to do if men are evil.

Not Trustworthy

The sad fact is this: mankind cannot be trusted with technology. Whereas many technologies can be used for good, mankind is all too quick to use them for evil as well. And in general, the uses of technology made by human beings are far more often evil than good, because men are evil. Technology magnifies what is in mankind, you see … and ethics actually ends up having very little to say about that, because it arrives far too late, with far too little insight, and no means to address the wicked nature of much that is in mankind.

Now, maybe that doesn’t give you a tidy answer regarding gene splicing. But I don’t think even a tidy answer would address the problem. From a Christian perspective, ethics as a whole is a misconceived field; it’s a secular attempt to invent rules that will guarantee good. But no such project will ever work more than temporarily, especially where something so powerful as new medical technology is concerned.

So the problem is not so much that we are playing God; it’s that we’re being fallen men. We are not the kind of creatures that can be trusted to invent technologies and use them only for good; we’re the kind of creatures that invent technologies that have both good and bad applications [adiaphora], AND the kind of creatures that invent technologies that are structurally bent towards evil as well.

Forming a View

So where does gene splicing fit in this equation? I think you should decide. List all the good applications you can think of. List all the bad ones that seem even remotely possible. Then look at which ones are smoothest, most efficient, most powerful, most humanly interesting, and most effective in using that technology, especially. That will come as close as we can get to showing you beforehand what the technology will end up being used for. Then, I think, you can say whether the technology is a case of adiaphora, or of actually-evil technology.

That won’t give you all the information that really needs to go into forming your own position about this new medical innovation: it cannot, because we cannot even know right now all the things that something like gene splicing stands to do. But it might give you more than you would otherwise have. Any complete answer is going to start, not with the technological particulars, but with the nature of mankind. Until Christ returns, there is no answer to the question, “How do we keep our new technologies from ushering us down a quick path to ruin.”

Once again, the real answers are spiritual, not pragmatic.

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