An explosion of responsibilities
Man is increasingly able to determine his own destiny, all of which brings with it new responsibilities which, in turn, require new sets of morals.
Biotechnology and nanotechnology are two fields of science that promise to shake the foundations of vested morals, not so much because they transgress ethical frontiers but more because they open up new terrains where man previously did not have a say in matters. Hence the reason that new technological-ethical dilemmas arise in areas that were once the exclusive preserve of religion and people’s outlooks on life.
“These days an unborn baby can be tested for all kinds of genetic defects that are highly likely to lead to handicaps”, Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra explains. “In the past a handicapped child was something that just befell you. Indeed there is an aspect of our ethical legacy which asserts that there is a certain praiseworthyness attached to dealing with adversity. Viewed from that angle a handicapped child can even be a source of enrichment. That does not of course justify opting to have a handicapped child. But thanks to technology we now more frequently have the opportunity to opt for not allowing such a child to be born. Does that not mean that by consciously ignoring that possibility one does “immorally – opt for a handicapped child?”
Whilst biotechnology is able to rectify the course of life, nanotechnology holds other promises for us. With the dawn of the age of being able to manipulate material at the atomic level the dividing-line between dead and living matter gradually disappears. Currently researchers are trying to build up the genome for a cell of yeast molecule by molecule, thus creating life from dead matter.
What Swierstra does is to adopt the “morality fiction” approach in order to study the ethical consequences of new technologies. In that way he is able to systematically develop techno-moral scenarios in order to explore the future. It is a type of speculation, the researcher admits, but it is a decisive way of exploring the various dilemmas with which people of the future very well might be confronted.
“We are increasing our grip on reality”, Swierstra informs us. “That is something about which we are profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand that is what we want. But now this ambition seems to become realized, we find ourselves hurled into a moral void. We have always combated illnesses, but in the secure knowledge that ultimately we would lose that battle. What if we no longer lose? Then we can strive to attain immortality but is that really something we want?”
For individuals those are the kinds of dilemmas that can be translated into very concrete questions. Illnesses will be discovered in much earlier stages but should one employ chemotherapy as soon as the first cancer cell is detected or do the disadvantages of intervening outweigh the benefit of the cure? And if not, when is the right moment to start, also bearing in mind the psychological burden which that brings with it if you know that cancer is rife in your system but the time is not yet ripe for treating it? When is the time right for a doctor to inform someone about all of that?
“The more technologies we develop”, Swierstra claims, “the greater the responsibility we humans have to shoulder. Sometimes, as in the case of cloning people, we say: we will not do that. But at the same time we know that once a technique has been developed time can not be turned back. That is why it is so important to involve the general public in such technological developments, if only to ensure that they are not taken by surprise by such advancements.”