Tuesday, March 02, 2010

When Ethics is Not Enough

In the original movie of Jurassic Park, the Jeff Goldblum character in one part of the movie's dialogue makes a very poignant comment on the nature scientific ethics and technology. Unfortunately, in the flow of that particular scene in the movie, the scientists and lawyer are having dinner and discussing whether it was right or wrong to recreate dinosaurs for purposes of a theme park. The line Goldblum blurts out comes off as little more than an emotively comedic throw-away line, "Scientists are so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they don't stop to think if they should."

I had completely forgotten that little bit of movie banter until I read a very interesting article1 in, of all places, Archaeology Magazine this month. The subject of the article is found in the article's title: "Should We Clone Neanderthals?" The title can make the article sound like something from the pages of a Ray Bradbury short story or a chapter from George Orwell's 1984. But the premise of the article is that the cloning of Neanderthals, what some scientists believe to be the closest biological kin to modern humans, is not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, according to the article, the whole Neanderthal genome is soon to be completely decoded. Since Neanderthals are not technically human, the article goes on to say that this would be a very tempting target for scientists to try to clone because the ethics and laws governing cloning of non-humans are much more lax. Just ask Dolly the Sheep.

After reading that article, my initial reaction was to scoff. "Surely that would never happen!" I said to myself as I put the magazine aside, "That's Star Wars type stuff." Acting on a supposition, however, I passed that article along to various friends and colleagues of mine who work in various biological research fields at a university near my parish. All the responses I got back were enthusiastically of the opinion that the potential was staggering for scientific breakthroughs like medicines and therapies that could come from cloning a Neanderthal. Jeff Goldblum's warning seemed to hold true: their focus was entirely on whether or not they could, not whether or not they should.

Most people have a gut reaction against the idea of cloning humans, or at the very least that the cloning of anything should be governed by ethics. I am not convinced that ethics alone can possibly govern the arena of the cloning of anything. The knowledge of ethics is not precise knowledge, like mathematics. Knowledge of ethics is general knowledge like history. We like to pretend that Ethics applies to all things theoretical, but ethics involves a practical discipline rather than a theoretical one.

Ethics is like learning to play baseball. You can read training manuals and watch "how to" videos all you want, but to become a good baseball player, you have to go out and practice and play in actual games at some point. In other words, one cannot simply study ethics like one would would study, memorize, and apply a mathematical equation. One has to have a physical grounding in the field to which one wishes to apply ethics.

As such, the banner of ethics as the lone plumb line to which all potential action in the field of cloning is ultimately deemed good or bad is simply not enough. Simple ethics only applies to "whether or not they could" not "whether or not they should." The divine revelation of the value of life itself must ultimately come into play as the guiding star, as the highest good, to which all actions regarding the use of biotechnology and cloning must be measured and weighed.

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