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ethics

March 06, 2009

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.

August 11, 2005

I have been reflecting this week on the Apostle’s admonition to “avoid evil.” Heady stuff for a vacation, I admit! My need to more fully understand this concept arose as I wrote about movies and the Christian obsession with watching and enjoying them regardless of their content. It took me some time, but I realized that I had reflected on this in the past, though it was several years ago.

The last time I remember writing about the importance of avoiding evil was after reading an article about Jeffery Dahmer. I assume that most North Americans are familiar with him, as he gained great notoriety in the 1990’s as one of America’s most vile serial killers. Over a two-decade period he was responsible for the murder (and sometimes cannibalization and other unmentionable acts) of seventeen men. The usual American media circus accompanied his trial and sentencing. His life came to a violent end when, shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment, he was murdered by another inmate.

I read the story of his life, from his upbringing in a normal family to his gruesome death in prison, with a kind of horror, but also with a kind of fascination. Though the article was, thankfully, short on specifics, it certainly provided enough detail to show just what a depraved individual Dahmer was. And despite the depravity, I lapped this story up like a dog lapping up his own vomit.

Later in the evening I reflected on the fascination I had felt when reading the article. Why is it that I could be absorbed with something so vile and so unnatural? Why would I even want to know the details of such a life? A couple of possibilities came to mind.

Perhaps it could be that it is simply inconceivable to me that such evil could exist in a mind and body just like mine. In many ways Dahmer was little different than me. He was raised in the same society (albeit a few years before my time) with many of the same values, had a job and paid his taxes. Yet within him lurked this terrible evil. So perhaps my fascination was simply my mind crying out in disbelief that this was a man not too terribly unlike me.

The second possibility may be easier to explain by analogy. I was reminded of a recurring theme within that timeless story Lord of the Rings, a story that most people are now familiar with. Frodo Baggins has been bequeathed a ring of immense power. Though at first he does not realize it, this ring is actually a source of incredible evil. It contains within it the wrath, fury and evil of the sorcerer Sauron, who represents the source of evil within Middle Earth. As the story progresses, we see that Frodo has begun to fall under the ring’s power. The ring has a kind of mind of its own and desires to return to its master. As Sauron’s minions search for this ring, Frodo finds himself drawn to them. The ring, which he wears on a chain around his neck, pulls him towards the power of evil. This evil ring around his neck, desires to return to its wicked master.

Within every human there is an evil nature. The Bible, in Jeremiah 17:9 says, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Anyone who denies that he has these sinful inclinations is in defiance of the obvious. So perhaps the fascination I felt in reading about someone so vile as Dahmer is simply the evil within me drawing me to an even greater source of evil. Perhaps the evil within me is just crying out and pulling me to allow it to return to its master. It is a daunting thought, that lurking within my heart, just barely beneath the surface, is an evil that is fighting to escape.

The third possibility is that my fascination was based on a combination the other two reasons. The side of me that is appalled by wickedness recoiled at the thought of such evil. At the same time, the part of me that delights in all manner of wickedness was drawn towards more and greater evil. One thing that is certain and is beyond possibility is the wisdom of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-24. “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

While I may be drawn to evil, and in fact, am willing to admit that I am drawn to it, the fact remains that God commands that I avoid it. And not only am I to avoid evil, but I am to avoid every kind of evil - the mere possibility or hint of evil. God’s standards are high. So is my propensity towards evil. Evil has a magnetic pull that draws me towards it. Thankfully God, in His great wisdom, has placed within me the Spirit who graciously allows me to see this evil, to hate it, and ultimately to avoid it.