BY: JAMES F. DRANE, PhD
Dr. Drane is Russell B. Roth Professor of Bioethics, Edinboro University
of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA. He is currently at work on a book-length version
of the argument presented here: Toward a More Humane Medicine: A Catholic
Genetic engineering and other modern technologies have the potential to change
the world. They can alter plants, animals, the way human beings are made — the
very structures of human life. This news is not necessarily good, however. Given
what history reveals to be a chronic myopia when predicting the negative consequences
of scientific and technological change, the idea of humans remaking the world
may strike some people as frightening.
Because of these fears, establishing limits to technological intervention
has become a first-order priority. The idea of relying on individual human freedom
and creativity alone no longer makes any sense. Freedom and creativity are important.
But if they are the sole considerations guiding decisions about the direction
of today's technology, we are in grave danger.
Science and Technology
The notion of an "ethics of limits" is a very difficult concept for Americans — especially
American scientists — to accept. Scientists typically insist on freedom from interference
with their work in both pure science and its application to the world. The idea
of imposing limits on their work would be a tough sell.
Many scientists today operate from a particular intellectual perspective.
In this view, science is a process of discovery based on quantitative observations
rationalized via causal mechanisms to either prove or disprove a formulated
hypothesis. There is no room in this process for human emotion and no need to
address philosophical and ethical questions. This scientific perspective represses
a broader way of understanding reality, which scientists and philosophers historically
experienced with a certain awe and reverence. Awe and reverence, as it happens,
tend to ground a respect for nature and provide the starting point of an ethics
of limits — an ethics that would encourage science and technology while, at the
same time, restraining scientific and technological interventions that could
radically alter or even destroy the awesome order of reality that is the source
of both science and ethics.
Human beings are unique in their ability to understand the order inherent
in reality. Although contemporary culture tends to see science as the most important
vehicle for human understanding, it is, in fact, just one among many vehicles.
Truly great scientists show that their understanding of reality transcends the
coldly rationalistic. Such people become personally immersed in the reality
with which they work. They exhibit in their work what could be described as
an indwelling: an immersion in the reality with which they work. Their
relationship with cosmology or biology could, in some instances, be described
as reverential, perhaps even mystical.
But this dimension of science tends to be lost for many of today's scientists.
They seem incapable of moving beyond the more banal tasks of observing and measuring
narrow aspects of the whole. These gatherers and counters of data consider themselves
scientists in the full sense of the term. Indeed, they hold themselves up as
models of what science means. And yet they ignore an important aspect of their
discipline: that is, the awe and the indwelling experienced by great scientific
geniuses. In doing so, they ignore the important distinction made by Francis
Bacon between "fact gatherers" and real scientists.1
The great scientific geniuses were truly creative. They were tuned into the
inner rationality and established order of the universe and dwelt within it.
They identified personally with what they were trying to understand. Their attitudes,
intuitions, feelings, and aesthetic sensitivities were as much involved in their
science as counting and fact gathering.* Their science involved their whole
person, not just a capacity for cold objectification.†
*Albert Einstein was an example of the kind of scientist who has a broad,
creative, almost mystical involvement with his subject matter.
†This point was developed by Michael Polanyi, a great scientist who, late
in life, became a philosopher of science. See Polanyi, Personal Knowledge,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.
The Need for Scientific and Technological Limits
Many of the intelligentsia just a generation ago were convinced that communism
would eliminate human poverty and that penicillin would eliminate infectious
disease. We know what happened under communism — it extended the poverty it claimed
to eliminate. Antibiotics have failed to eradicate infectious disease, and,
what is worse, their misuse has created dangerous resistant bacterial strains.
These facts should make us think about untoward consequences, about the possibility
of disaster — and about establishing ethical limits to technological interventions.
Some contemporary scientists, shaped by a perspective that emphasizes willpower
and creativity, are likely to interact with reality in a destructive way. Because
they have no personal regard for the objects of their study, they tend to intervene
in nature with hammer and tongs. Having done that, they may presume to reorganize
the pieces according to their "creative instincts." They can remain narrowly
focused because they have no personal sensitivity for the broader order of things.
They can do brazen things to the natural world because they do not care about
it personally. Indeed, they may be more interested in fame and fortune than
anything else. The experience of awe — which puts the importance of an individual
in perspective — has been lost to such people. The coherence and rationality of
the larger reality escape their notice and concern. Nothing about that broader
cosmic reality might cause such people to modify their personal ambitions or
moderate the use of their technological instruments.
Science and technology must, like other human endeavors, be bound by ethical
constraints. Scientists and engineers can no more do whatever they like than
popes or presidents can. All human activity has a moral dimension and is subject
to moral constraints. Evil is possible. Ethics attempts to identify the evil
and to establish the constraints. In doing so, it neither undermines science
nor unnecessarily restrains technology. Required courses in the philosophy and
ethics of science are appropriate for every graduate program in science.
Yes, scientists must be free and allowed to be creative. But they should also
take into consideration the fact that freedom and creativity derive from respect
for the broad rational order of reality itself. The great scientists have shown
this respect and acted responsibly. Mediocre scientists (and worse) are the
problem because they now have access to powerful technological instruments.
In today's world, seemingly small technological interventions can suddenly blossom
into enormous disruptions. Such disruptions could destroy the very conditions
Consider, as an example, the highly publicized issue of genetically altered
corn and the monarch butterfly. The use of genetic technology to alter basic
foods — corn, wheat, and rice-has become common in recent years. The developers
of this technology naturally claim that it is safe. Unfortunately, the dangers
involved in altering basic crops may not become evident until the alterations
are beyond remedy. Genetically altered corn, which has proliferated widely,
appeared to produce pollen containing a natural insecticide that kills monarch
butterfly caterpillars. The natural structure of farming and food production
is delicate, indeed fragile. Another genetically altered crop might conceivably
wreck, not a population of butterflies, but some critical component of the human
food chain itself.
Genetically altered crops are not the only potential threat to continued human
existence. Any number of new technologies generated by contemporary science
and engineering can create instruments of mass destruction. Frightful evil is
not just what terrorists or rogue governments can do. Now even ordinary laboratory
scientists and technicians can cause widespread destruction. (The recent anthrax
incident may have been the work of a single laboratory scientist.)
Identifying a Basic Ethical Principle for Limits
How can science, so dependent on creativity and freedom, be made subject to
limits without undermining science itself?
The ancient Greek philosophers distinguished between two levels of reality:
ananke (fate), over which human beings have no power; and techne, which
is open to human intervention. Techne is also the root of our English
word technology, which roughly means a system or set of skills for making
changes. The ancient Greeks, a creative people, had an enthusiasm for changing
things whenever possible. Aristotle could be said to have launched the quest
for an ethics of technology, and he did so from what in Latin is referred to
as Recta ratio factibilium ("What reason requires with regard to those
things which we are able to do").2 For him, what regulates the making
of things is the practical intellect, or practical reason.
"Reason" was the key word for Aristotle. Reason, he believed, can show us
not only what we are able to do to reality, or nature (the Greek word for which
is physis), but also what we should not try to do. Reason, in other words,
can indicate the limits of technology. Reason reveals to us humans the
positive and negative obligations we bear toward the reality that surrounds
us and with which we interact. Ethical technology is production under the guidance
Christianity essentially adopted Aristotle's view of the relationship between
science and nature. The early Christians held that nature, being God's creation,
is just what God meant it to be. Nature, or physis, is therefore the
foundation of morality. Insofar as technology imitates nature, helps it, or
corrects its occasional malfunctions, then it is ethically right. Insofar as
technology destroys, subverts, or inhibits nature, it is ethically wrong. Medieval
Christian thinkers prized Aristotle's aphorism: "If one way be better than another,
you may be sure it is Nature's way."3
St. Thomas Aquinas, who built his arguments on Aristotelian logic, believed
that humans were closest to God in their ability to reason.4 However,
in the 14th century two Catholic scholars, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham,
argued that humans are most godlike in our ability to act freely.5
They held that we behave morally not when we understand and imitate nature but,
rather, when we use our wills to dominate it. Intellectus, si est
causa voluntatis, est causa subserviens voluntati, as Duns Scotus put it
("Intelligence, in effect, serves the will and is subordinate to freedom").
This change in perspective brought with it a completely different ethics.
Technology, which was formerly justified by its imitation of reality, now is
justified by its domination of reality. This view, underlying the 17th- and
18th-century revolution in science and technology, was radically optimistic.
Nothing is impossible, thought the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Illness
and all other forms of human unhappiness would soon be eliminated. Reason was
still important, as long as it served will and freedom. In our own time, some
scientists have come to see themselves as cocreators-God's partners, as it were,
in the creation of reality.
Stem cell research is (along with cloning) probably the best-known contemporary
example of what might be called "cocreative science." Such research is performed,
of course, on human embryos. Cocreative scientists argue that the study of stem
cells will reveal important insights into the basic biology of human beings,
ultimately leading to breakthrough therapy for devastating diseases.
The point is that genetic engineering, cloning, and other technologies now
make possible radical alterations in the natural world. Without limits of some
sort, such alterations seem certain to lead sooner or later to disaster. How,
then, should we go about setting limits?
Setting Defensible Limits
Giving priority to an ethical perspective that requires, as the starting point
and the reigning value, a respect for the established order makes sense. Such
a perspective does not eliminate a role for human will and creativity. It also
does not guarantee that technology-induced disaster will not occur anyway. Still,
this perspective would tilt scientific and technological decision making away
Of course, a perspective based on respect for the natural order will not automatically
produce ethically defensible limits. To prevail, it must rest on persuasive
argument from experts in science and technology, philosophy, law, and religion.
In any advanced culture, religious or secular, limitations on liberty must
be justified. Religious cultures root such limits in a sense of a "created"
order, which serves as the ultimate ground of ethical decision making. For such
cultures, the world as a created order is a good in itself. It is not the ultimate
good but nevertheless a real and objective good. Despite its fallen-ness, the
world seen from a Judeo-Christian, "Natural Law" perspective retains order and
goodness. It displays a harmony, beauty, and intelligibility that call for respect,
and it provides a vantage point from which ethical reflection can begin. In
such a world, basic ethical principles (freedom, justice, love, wisdom, dignity,
and others) are grounded in the established order. Technological interventions
and alterations are justified as long as they do not threaten that order.
Secular cultures also put restrictions on freedom and creativity. The late
Isaiah Berlin, a political philosopher who championed liberty and democracy,
argued that "it is at times justifiable to coerce men in the name of some goal
(e.g., justice or public health) which they would, if they were more enlightened
themselves, pursue but do not because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt."6
Berlin recognized the need for limits on liberty because, he saw, the
world and human life are doomed without them. Preserving life is a rational,
objective good, he held-meaning by that a value similar to what Catholic moralists
would derive from Natural Law.
Religious and secular thinkers alike can see in the world's order the moral
foundation for setting ethical limits. Allowing scientists to use today's powerful
technologies to do whatever they wish would be wildly irrational. Employing
human liberty to destroy human life makes no sense at all. Indeed, liberty makes
sense only in the context of life on earth. Because this is so, continued
life in a sustaining world is the moral foundation from which we should make
judgments about specific technological interventions.
Whatever puts the world and human life at risk is rationally absurd and morally
indefensible. Both religious people (who believe that God created the earth
and life upon it) and secular people (who see reality as the product of chance)
can defend this position. Although they give it different names, they share
a basic respect for the established order and oppose any use of technology that
might threaten that order.
Not that the established order is perfect. It includes, along with its beautiful
aspects, ugly ones: pollutants, cancers, and war. Human beings can and should
use technology to advance the beautiful and the good and reduce the evil and
the ugly. But technological capacity must be exercised with great care. Otherwise,
in trying to advance good and reduce evil, humans may do the ultimate evil and
We need a widely accepted ethical basis for limiting technological expressions
of freedom and creativity. Respect for the established order is as close as
secular and religious thinkers can come to agreeing on a primary moral principle,
one from which further ethical reflection can proceed and particular decisions
concerning technological interventions can be made.
Not everyone will accept this basic moral absolute, however. Mechanistic,
reductionist, and materialist assumptions are so pervasive in contemporary culture
that some people — including some research scientists and physicians — assume that
there is no such basic principle. Like certain fundamentalists, they simply
take their personal assumptions for the truth. Many intellectuals will be immediately
uncomfortable the moment they hear ethical limits proposed. The idea that, absent
such limits, technology could lead humankind to disaster is likely to strike
them as science fiction.
And they may be right. But they should consider, for example, an article published
a few years ago in a well-known scientific journal. The article, by Marvin L.
Minsky, an MIT professor who specializes in artificial intelligence, was entitled
"Will Robots Inherit the Earth?" Yes, was Minsky's answer. As presently constructed,
human beings are too short-lived, fragile, and unintelligent to truly flourish,
he maintained. We must increasingly look to technology to augment our physical
and mental abilities. "Eventually we will replace our brains — using nanotechnology.
Once delivered from the limitations of biology, we will be able to decide the
length of our lives — with the option of immortality — and choose among other, unimagined
capabilities as well."7
As Minsky sees it, human beings are badly designed — but, fortunately, that
design can be changed. The idea of using technology to alter the structure of
human life is perfectly acceptable to him. Minsky sets aside both ethical considerations
and worry about ominous possibilities. He focuses solely on his interests and
his view of scientific "progress."
However, we can move this discussion from the research laboratory to a more
familiar hospital setting. Wherever a technology threatens the established order
of life, it becomes morally unacceptable. In many hospitals today, life-support
technology is used to keep alive patients suffering from degenerative, incurable
illnesses and for whom death is imminent and irreversible. Such uses of technology
are wrong. Technology used to cure illness and improve quality of life is good.
Technology used to prolong death is bad. Order exists in human life, and death
and dying are part of that order. Violating the order, or failing to respect
it, crosses the moral line.
Science and Sin
Science and technology raise difficult ethical issues. Only after they had
built the atomic bomb — after the first ones were dropped on Japan and in the
midst of a nuclear arms race that threatened the future of humanity — did some
of its creators admit that "physicists have known sin."8 They had
finally come to see that their technology had caused enormous evil and little
good. They recognized that they had crossed a moral line.
Trying to think through the task of establishing limits to technology will
be complicated and arduous. But we cannot afford to shrink from it. And we can
take some comfort from coming to agreement, across wide ideological chasms,
on an ethical starting point and an agreed-upon ethical principle.
- Francis Bacon refers to this distinction throughout his major work, Novum
Organum (see The New Organon, and Related Writings, Bobbs-Merrill,
Indianapolis, 1984). Real science, he argues, does more than collect facts.
Fact collection can end in ignorance. Bacon's method provides a direction,
first, for experiment and, ultimately, for real knowledge. He rejects empiricism
("fact gathering") at one extreme and rationalism at the other.
- Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics: Book VI, Martin Ostuald, trans.,
Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1962, p. 154.
- Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics: Book V, p. 131.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, II, 94, 3:21, 1c.
- John Duns Scotus, Opus Oxoniense, III, 19; William of Ockham, Quodlibeta,
III, 9, 13.
- Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty: Inaugural Lecture as Chicherle
Professor of Social and Political Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
England, 1969, p. 132.
- Marvin L. Minsky, "Will Robots Inherit the Earth?" Scientific American
October 1994, p. 271. The complete article, with what the author describes
as minor revisions, can also be found at www.ai.mit.edu/people/minsky/papers/sciam.inherit.html
- J. Robert Oppenheimer said, "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity,
no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known
sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." The Oxford Dictionary
of Quotations, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1966, p. 449.
Copyright © 2002 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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