Technology and the Slippery Slope

By on April 3rd, 2013 in Ethics, Societal Impact, Topics

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d finished (listening to) Alexander McCall Smith’s “Creating Humans: Ethical Questions where Reproduction and Science Collide” Which is an insightful and detailed consideration of recent medical technology.  In my youth I took a class from Dr. Joshua Lederberg which was a predecessor to “Human Biology” programs, that outlined where he anticipated we would encounter challenges as medical science advanced.  No doubt updates will be needed a bit more often than every few decades as these advances accelerate.

Smith spends some time describing, then disparaging the ethical argument of the “slippery  slope”.  He asserts that just because scientists have demonstrated capability “A”, which seems reasonable, they can choose to avoid capability “B” which (some) consider unethical.  For example — if a baby is selected in-vitro to match a sibling so that stem cells from that baby can be used to save the life of a sibling, it is not necessarily true that such technology might be used to create “disposable” babies, or self-centered treatment for the parent(s).  And so far his argument is solid.  Given that people have free choice (an argument I cannot chose to deny), then it would be possible for a scientist to reach step A and reject step B.

However, this ignores a reality of technology and science.  The pioneer who reaches step A, may have no say about the work of his (far removed) acolyte who decides to move to step B.  And my choice of words is misleading, since it implies a shared moral perception, and the professional taking things to step B may be in a quite different culture and situation.

In which countries, for example, might the creation of “disposable” babies be,  if not acceptable, at least ignored? I can envision a few — places that do not share western values (as we like to call them) respecting human life — and perhaps value the health of the elderly or elite more.  Child sacrifice has been practiced in many parts of the world, and with a less scientific justification than saving the life of the king (or richest guy in town).   I would not put it past some smaller countries to leverage their autonomy for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful as they have in the past for hidden banking, to provide uncommon medical services.  And there are many procedures much less objectionable than disposable children.

For better or worse, the probability of B occurring, once A has been accomplished is significantly improved.  There is not a necessity of physics that B will follow A, but there may be a inevitability of human nature that things will go this direction.

So what’s a scientist/technologist to do? Smash the atom, you get an atom bomb. Cure small pox and you get weaponized anthrax.  Demonstrate a computer worm and you get international crime rings executing virtual bank robberies. The traditional mantra is that “technology is neutral”, or paraphrased “<whatever’s> don’t kill people, people kill people”.  Which is exactly Smith’s rebuttal to the slippery slope — these are issues of human choice, albeit also of human nature.

I suspect there are areas of research to reach goal “A”, that might be best rejected because the probability of this leading to goal “B” is increased to an unacceptable level.  I also suspect that if goal “A” or even goal “B” is perceived to have sufficient value in some communities, that the research will proceed in any case.

Do you have any candidates for “prohibited research” to avoid ending up at the bottom of the slippery slope?