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When Technology Outpaces Morality

On Wednesday I posited that endless choice brings us endless discontentment. While marketers may try to assure us that a consumer with more options is a happier consumer, evidence seems to indicate that more options mostly make us increasingly miserable. Speaking personally, I can attest that this is true. I don’t want to disparage choice as if being forced to choose is somehow wrong. But plain experience shows that infinite choice does not bring about greater happiness. If anything, the opposite is true.

I began thinking about this as I read news articles about so-called “designer babies.” An article from the BBC says, “LA Fertility Institutes run by Dr Jeff Steinberg, a pioneer of IVF in the 1970s, expects a trait-selected baby to be born next year.” Using a lab technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, his clinic allows parents to choose not only the sex of their child, but also physical traits such as hair color and eye color. Though in the past this technology has been used primarily to screen for inheritable genetic defects, clinics are now beginning to use it to screen for physical traits. By next year we should begin to see the first generation of customized children—children whose parents have ensured that they will be free from genetic disorders and children whose gender, hair color, eye color and even height have been carefully selected.

The ethical dilemmas here are dizzying; they are so plentiful, I hardly know where to begin.

Maybe the best place to begin is with the conscience. I believe any biblically-informed conscience (and even many consciences that know nothing of the Bible) will rebel against this. And rightly so. As Christians we know that God has given conscience as a gift; somehow he has planted within us some knowledge of his law and conscience can steer us away from violating it. And so we ought to listen to conscience. When conscience reacts as strongly as it does when it hears of designer children, we need to take heed.

But I want to look at just a couple of other implications—ones that are related to what I wrote on Wednesday.

Endless choice bring endless regret. When we have fewer options, we are able to have more confidence in the choice we eventually make. If I have only three cell phones available to me, the task of choosing just one of them is relatively straightforward. When I have three hundred phones available to me and each one can be customized with cases, colors, ringtones and nearly everything else, the choice becomes much more difficult. And after I finally make a choice, it is far more likely that I will regret my decision. This is especially so when each of these phones will soon be replaced by something even better; even the latest and greatest is on the verge of utter irrelevance and obsolescence.

How much more so when we think about our children? When we customize our children, we will think of them differently; we will have to think of them differently. Since the dawn of Creation, humans have regarded children as a surprise and mystery. Will he have mom’s hair? Will she have dad’s eyes? Will it be a boy or a girl? We have always had to leave such things in the hands of God. We may wish or hope or dream, but ultimately each child is a gift from God. This is true whether the child is mentally and physically sound with just the physical traits we had hoped for or whether the child is mentally and physically handicapped and with none of the physical traits we may have wished for. Of course genetic testing and widespread abortion have already allowed us to destroy almost every child with mental or physical handicaps. But now this technology is going further so that we are able to choose far more; at the very least we can increase the probability for one or more of the physical traits.

What would cause us to believe that the ability to choose our child’s hair color, eye color and other traits is going to make us happier with the child? Does not the very fact that we can make such choices open the possibility that we will then be able to regret the choice?

Endless customization also leads to discontent because it raises our expectations. If I go to the local car lot and buy a standard model car, my expectations of that vehicle will be far different than if I buy a heavily-customized car. I once saw a television show where a football player was buying a new car. He bought it from a dealer and immediately drove it to a shop where it was heavily customized; the after-market customization cost far more than the original value of the vehicle. And, of course, when the car was ready he looked it over with the utmost care to make sure it had been customized to his exact specifications. He would have been satisfied with nothing less. He had paid for, demanded and now expected perfection.

How could things be any different with children whose importance and impact obviously far eclipse a car? How will a parent react when her customized child turns out to be just as fussy, just as grouchy, just as sinful as any other child? Will this parent not have increased expectations of the child and potentially unrealistically high expectations?

Imagine a mother’s reaction when she pays money (lots of money!) to customize her child—perhaps she has selected a child with blond hair and blue eyes—and finds that the child actually has brown hair with green eyes. Will she demand her money back? Will she still be able to love such a child? After all, this technology offers no guarantees—she may demand a physical trait only to see the technology fail her. Can she live happily with a green-eyed child when all her friends’ children have blue? One British fertility expert warns against “turning babies into commodities that you buy off the shelf.” And this is exactly what we face—children who are commodities who can be carefully customized and personalized. Only if we buy into today’s consumerist mindset could we possibly believe that this will make us any happier or any more content. The reality, I’m convinced, will be just the opposite.

Again, I think the ethical implications go far beyond this, but these are just two implications that grow out of the consumerist mindset so prominent in our culture. Shopping for just one out of hundreds of cell phones may be relatively insignificant, but I think we can see it as just a shadow of the moral dilemmas that we are beginning to face as technology continues to far outpace morality.