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Ethics 101

Artificial Womb
An unborn lamb was able to grow for weeks in an artificial womb that scientists hope to test on humans

For many years now, in ethics classes for teenagers, I have been using the concept that artificial wombs look like they will be available in their reproductive lifetime as a debating topic. Now, news of an artificial womb for animals makes this discussion even more pressing.

Then, this weekend, we read:

Professor Sergio Canavero, Director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, is aiming to carry out the first human head transplant within 10 months and then wants to begin trials on brain transplants…Hundreds of people who are dying or paralysed have had their bodies or brains cryogenically preserved in the hope that medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure their conditions… “We will try to bring the first of the company’s patients back to life, not in 100 years. As soon as the first human head transplant has taken place, i.e. no later than 2018, we will be able to attempt to reawaken the first frozen head,” said Prof Canavero.

My own denomination (worldwide Anglicanism) with the rarest of exceptions focuses on one issue only. For three decades now the Anglican bus has been circling the does-the-Bible-allow-committed-same-sex-couples round about. There have been many who have ended up off the bus through the years of centrifugal force. And I don’t see a lot of people even trying to get on this bus while it’s going round and round in this circle.

As an aside, woe betide anyone applying the roundabout theories beyond homosexuals with any consistency to heterosexuals (see here and here – ps. it’s a year, later this month, that we have been waiting for a response to the latter ‘here’.)

The roundabout debate may be being presented as an ethical issue, but it is being pursued (as I’ve indicated) as an exegetical one (ie. it is primarily about interpretation of Biblical texts). This means that there has been little to no development in agility in different ethical theories and, importantly, no development (consequentially) in facility to engage and dialogue beyond the church’s edge with the majority context (where Biblical exegesis carries no weight). The result is that when it comes to the sort of significant issues facing the wider world (the sort of issues I began this post with), we Christians have no shared grammar with non-Christians and no real voice in that wider world.

For most clergy and church leaders I encounter, words like ‘consequentialism’, ‘deontology’, ‘utilitarianism’, ‘natural law’, and ‘proportionalism’ have little meaning. Rather than being agile with such distinctions, conversations such clergy initiate with me are often at the level of “How do you feel about…?”

If we Christians are to have any traction in today’s world, I posit that (as well as agility online and with spirituality) we need clear competence in ethics in an increasingly complex world where the two examples I began this post with are merely two amongst a mushrooming number of developments where we humans need to have the wisdom and the will to decide whether just because we can – should we?

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8 Responses to Ethics 101

  1. I suspect that making ethics relevant is really more consequential than deonological, because we need to frame the issues in practical ways which affect real people and speak in terms of social justice, human rights, and protection from exploitation, greed, and injustice, and what’s necessary for real human flourishing and to foster the common good.

    For example, artificial wombs or brain transplants are probably morally neutral per se, but the consequences in terms of exploitation by the rich and powerful and market forces are clear and dangerous.

    Here’s two good recent examples which I think frame ethical issues quite well (and they avoid moral theological buzz words which few of us really understand!).



    Many Blessings

    • Thanks, Chris.
      Although “human flourishing” is a current (vague) “buzz word” that might be a doorway to personal ethical discussion, you seem to primarily frame the ethical enterprise from a social ethics perspective. So (your example) debating artificial wombs or brain transplants only gets traction for you when there is “exploitation by the rich and powerful and market forces”. I beg to differ. I think that the ethics of artificial wombs or brain transplants is a discussion needed alongside your exploitation discussion. I think we can do better than “probably morally neutral”, or at least we need to be able to have a discussion with people about this and do so beyond merely repeating “The Bible teaches…”. Easter Season Blessings.

    • Hi Chris,

      Interesting that you believe making ethics relevant means adopting a consequential approach. I disagree because I think taking the consequential approach is dangerous and exposes us to more ethical tangents detracting from the issue at hand.

      For example, if we focus on the consequences of an action, or technology, we risk making other people ‘mere means’. A common example is the abortion argument; consequentially the life of a baby is a victory, but it does require the mother becoming a ‘mere means’ the means to which the baby will be born. This limits her own moral value as we make it worth less than the life of the baby. However, if we take the deontoligcal approach and make the claim that a life is always worth saving, then we can have an argument against abortions without limiting the moral worth of the mother. (Please note, I am not taking a stand on abortion either way, just using it as an example). My choice to differentiate may seem like petty quibling, but let us extrapolate the two ethical paths. One the one hand we can say that the life should be saved because it is the best outcome, on the other we have said that all lives have an inherent worth that means they should be saved. If we apply these two paths two another example, we find consequentialism gives us an unhappy moral ending. Let us say there is a technology that allows the head transplants available now. Fred is a common man, James is a genius. James has the cure to cancer, but he is dying. Fred is perfectly healthy. By the consequentialist ideal it is better to give James’s head Fred’s body. This is the outcome because we have already said some lives are worth more than others, and most would agree that curing cancer is important. But this means will kill an innocent person (Fred) which is what we did not like about the abortion example, we wanted the child to live. So not only is our consequentialist approach leading to murder/immoral action but it is conflicting with our prior choice. If however we go with the deontoligcal appraoch where all lives are worth the same, then we don’t need to kill Fred- a better moral outcome for sure.

      When it comes to technology advancing, it is perhaps a better idea to look inwardly at the inherent values our faith prescribes (a deonological or possibly valeu ethics approach). This prevents us getting caught up in emeotions and outcomes that set bad precedent and cause more harm in the long run.

    • Bridie,

      Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful response.

      “the deontoligcal approach and make the claim that a life is always worth saving”.

      I don’t think that is a deontological approach. To my way of thinking, a deontological approach would be something like “human life is valuable and ought to enjoy the protection of the community”. Life is not always worth saving (one is not required to pursue unreasonably burdensome or futile medical treatments merely to extend life). In particular, life is not worth saving by means which have evil consequences.

      A moral choice is evil because it has bad consequences. If it does not have bad consequences that how can it be evil ?

      The problem with consequentialism is that it can encourage moral choices to achieve a good endgoal which themselves have evil consequences. Eg dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war.

      A good consequentialist approach needs to consider the consequences of the means chosen (proximate moral object) and not only the final endgoal (remote moral object).

      But the wider point I’m trying to make is, that to make ethics popularly relevant, we need to point to the evil consequences. Yes, intentionally killing a human being (including an embyro) is per se evil, but the way to make the popular argument is to point out how that has evil consequences for all human life.

      People seem to be more readily persuaded by consequences than by theoretical deontological arguments. For example, the most effective arguments against contraception are the feminist/green arguments from it’s consequences rather than an abstract argument about it’s negative deontology.

      Easter blessings

  2. Great post, Bosco. I agree this is an important topic and that most Clergy are not prepared to address it intelligently. I have recently started a blog to start engaging the issue of Artificial Intelligence with theology (www.aitheology.com). Just as you mention there, just looking for relevant verses won’t cut it. We need some robust reflection that starts with Scripture but is not afraid to engage philosophy and science.

    • Thanks, Elias. I’ve had the briefest of looks at your blog. I think you are unnecessarily limiting yourself by saying:

      No, we are not here to tell you the robots will overtake the world tomorrow. These scenarios, well-explored by science fiction, are not the point of this blog.

      It is not merely science fiction that needs to be addressing the threat to humans from AI. Furthermore, refugees and immigrants are being blamed for the loss of jobs which are primarily going to automation – so much so that we need to be debating an automation tax, IMO.

      Why do you say “starts with Scripture”? On most things, Christians “starting with Scripture” cannot come to an agreement.

      Easter Season Blessings.

  3. Hi Bosco,

    Do clergy really not know about different ethical theories? Maybe part of the future discussions on this increasingly prevalent ethical issues should include some more education on the theories, using common biblical examples?

    If we want to see the Church taking an active part in these discussions, not only internally but externally as well, then it would not do to be seen as ignorant on the very moral theories that are preached.

    Also, an argument can be made that Mary (the Mother of God) was the original artifical womb. Pause for thought perhaps!

    • I cannot judge the ordination standards in other places, Bridie (I know they exist in larger churches). All I know is that for NZ Anglicanism (a relatively small church) we cannot come to an agreed standard for ordination. If you have seen mention of any different ethical theories in our church’s roundabout documents – I’ve missed that. Again – I’m not as convinced as you that “using common biblical examples” is anything but a Trojan Horse – I’d prefer doing ethics in a manner that was in direct dialogue with those beyond the acceptance of the Bible. [I’m also not agreed that Mary’s womb was artificial – and that shows the limitation of finding “common biblical examples”.] Easter Season Blessings.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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