Frankenstein's Minister

The future of technology.
Dec. 10 1998 3:30 AM

Frankenstein's Minister

Ethicists fiddle while biotechnology remakes human beings.

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Ethicists also have trouble recognizing the new issues because they're trained to look for moral problems in technology's costs, not in its benefits. Dr. Arthur Caplan, the only ethicist at the hearing who betrayed any awareness of the new issues, focused instead on the morality of "trade-offs." "We should seek to achieve the most good or benefit, with the least harm and destruction of things that we value," he argued. But the benefits of the new technologies--ultimately, immortality and the rewriting of the recipe for human beings--are precisely what philosophers ought to ponder. Where are we going? What are we becoming?

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The immediate threat posed by the unraveling of the old physical and moral distinctions--between human beings and human parts, organisms and nonorganisms, subjects and objects--is that private interests will come to own the stuff of which we're made. As the hearing ended, Harkin expressed alarm that biotech companies were claiming licenses and patents to human stem cells. He said this concern had to do with the law, "not with ethical and moral implications." But if ethics is relegated to peripheral and obsolete questions while industry deconstructs, redesigns, and manufactures human components just like any other commodity, laws that exempt these components from patenting, licensing, and other property rights will lose their moral basis. And critics who object that human life is sacred won't have a leg to stand on.

If you missed the link about biotech companies' sham "ethics" codes, click here.