Biotech and the Poverty of Religious Morality

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At least several times a year, there’s an announcement about some breakthrough in the area of biotechnology which could lead to dramatic changes in human society and culture. One recent development is the use of in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) to produce baby mice. IVG involves reprogramming skin cells to transform them into egg or sperm cells, which in turn can be used to create embryos. Some experts say it could be another twenty-five years before this technique can be used in humans, but that’s merely a generation away. When the technique is perfected—well, just imagine how that could affect human reproduction.

And this is just one scientific advance. There are many others. Consider the progress made in identifying genes linked with certain traits, such as intelligence. Combine this knowledge with the revolution in reliable gene-editing techniques (via CRISPR) and the possibility of enhancing certain human traits moves rapidly from the realm of science fiction to the realm of science fact.

We’re not only on the brink of enhancing our abilities, but also of radically extending our lives. Progress in the field of life-extension has arguably been slower, but with the amount of Silicon Valley money invested in research (billionaires seem especially interested in prolonging life—go figure) it seems likely the means of significantly increasing human longevity will be available within twenty to thirty years, at least for some.

What brings me to the two main points of this essay. First, these developments all present critical ethical issues, including the issue of access to the benefits of this technology. We seem to have enough trouble providing basic healthcare to everyone, so it seems highly improbable that the government is going to fund enhancements or life-extension for everyone. As a result, the benefits of these innovative technologies may be restricted to the very wealthy, with troubling implications for social stability. Moreover, even if life-extension were widely available, would we want hundreds of millions of people living to the age of 150 or higher? The earth can barely sustain our current population. On the other hand, who is going to set a ceiling on how long people can live?

I’m not going to discuss how these and similar issues should be resolved here. This would require a book, not a blog post. But I am going to say how these issues should not be resolved, and that is by appealing to religious dogmas. Too many people still maintain that morality is somehow based on God’s commandments, and that one must look to religious texts or religious leaders to guide us. Granted, one can find some of the core principles of common morality— don’t kill, don’t steal, keep your promises—in the texts of all religions, but that’s because these core principles are indispensable for humans to live together in peace. No supernatural revelation is required to realize that society would collapse were certain core norms not followed by most people.

But holy writ also contains many precepts that are not part of core morality and that would be rejected by most people (at least in Western democracies) today. Despite the best efforts of obfuscating liberal theologians, there’s no denying both the Bible and Qur’an express toleration for slavery and regard women as subordinate to men.

However, for purposes of addressing ethical issues raised by biotechnology, I’m less concerned about what is in the Bible and Qur’an as opposed to what’s not in there. Even if one were inclined to consult sacred scriptures with respect to the ethical issues presented by novel technologies, one wouldn’t find any answers. This should not be a surprise. These writings were produced at a time when scientific knowledge was scant, let alone detailed knowledge of biology. The issues we will be facing were both unknown and unimaginable to those living in ancient Israel or Arabia of the 600’s. Therefore, these writings are utterly silent on the ethical issues presented by new biomedical procedures or techniques. To pretend otherwise, and to try to apply holy writ to these novel problems is an act of pernicious self-delusion.

This fact, of course, will not prevent religious leaders from creatively interpreting the Bible or Qur’an (or the Book of Mormon or some other compilation of alleged revelations) to address the ethics of biotechnology. They’ve already done that with respect to cloning and stem cell research. Religious leaders will not easily yield their perceived monopoly on dispensing ethical wisdom, but we need to recognize this charade for what it is: self-appointed spokespersons for God telling us what to do with no justification for their pronouncements other than tortured interpretations of centuries-old writings which collect the thoughts of persons who had no conception of the issues presented by the advances in biotechnology. And, of course, these spokespersons for God will invariably fail to agree among themselves as to what actions God approves, as the rabbi will say one thing, the priest another, and the imam something else entirely. When it comes to the ethical issues presented by biotech, religious morality is impoverished to the point of bankruptcy.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with the moral responsibility to consider these ethical issues carefully and to reason together about them guided by what serves the interests of humanity, both current and future generations. Blind deference to sacred writings and religious leaders is an abdication of that responsibility. There’s no guarantee, of course, that in reasoning together we will reach the optimal result and will wisely regulate the new biotechnologies. But on the other hand, if we rely on religion there is a certainty we will fail. Religion has nothing to offer but taboos without a clue.

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