It's time for an earlier introduction to ethics


I WRITE THIS having just returned from the annual all-Ireland Humanist Summer School in the picturesque village of Carlingford, Co Louth. The theme explored this year was humanist morality, and the presentations and discussions were wide-ranging and challenging.

Topics covered included situation ethics, the ethics of war, natural and supernatural morality and universal and cultural ethics. It was a timely theme and generated lively engagement from the 100 or so delegates in attendance. It got me thinking about ethics and science.

In an increasingly multicultural and secular environment, which continues to undergo rapid change, it is crucial that formal education and training in the methods of ethical and moral reasoning and analysis be provided as early as possible in the education system. My experience up to and including third level was a dearth of such input. Talks with recent graduates and teaching staff suggest not much has changed.

Common topics of ethical concern include contraception, abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, in vitrofertilisation and recently, the conflict between Church and State with regard to the handling of child sexual abuse cases and the status of the seal of confession. There is also an evolving philosophical movement that concerns itself with future possibilities in science that are likely to generate new ethical challenges.

Transhumanism, which is not directly associated with humanism, promotes an interdisciplinary approach to considering the application of scientific, medical and technological knowledge to the enhancement of human capabilities. Their aspirations include the eradication of disease, life extension, elimination of unnecessary suffering, improvements in cognitive abilities such as general intelligence, memory and processing speed, and the refinement of emotional sensitivity.

Currently we utilise a variety of technologies to compensate for loss or limitations of function in a wide range of conditions. We provide artificial limbs for amputees, augmentative and alternative communication methods for those who cannot speak, intraocular lenses for cataract sufferers and cochlear implants to assist the hearing impaired.

Few people would raise ethical objections regarding these therapeutic interventions. However, utilising this kind of technology to enhance the abilities of individuals with no physical problems may raise many questions. This is evident for example in the use by athletes of performance enhancing drugs. While there are many who argue against this practice, generally on the basis of fairness, there are those who say “Why not let people choose what to do?”

With developments in genetics it may soon be possible, not just to choose the sex of a child, but to determine the health of the child and to eliminate the chances of their being born with any of the common disabilities that currently occur at a predictable frequency, such as cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy. Should this be permitted, and if so, under what constraints?

It has been argued that it will soon be possible to construct virtual models of gene expression and to predict the outcome of genetic manipu- lation in humans. This technology would assist in devising research and intervention protocols. Transhumanists argue that parents would have a moral responsibility to use such technology to produce the healthiest children possible.

There have been many objections to the transhumanist programme, including unnecessary interference with nature, trivialisation of the variety of human experience, dehumanisation, and parallels have been drawn with the coercive eugenics of Nazism.

Given scientific advances, what may now seem like science fiction may rapidly become real and available. To preserve a vibrant and effective democracy we need our citizens to be well informed, competent and critical thinkers. To achieve this we need to ensure that the necessary experience is available to students at the earliest appropriate stage in their education.

There have been a number of initiatives aimed at broadening discussion on ethical issues. The Irish Council for Bioethics, for example, produced a number of important reports and hosted debates on a range of topics including human enhancement. Unfortunately, it ceased operation in 2010 as a consequence of a Government decision to discontinue funding.

Perhaps having recently entered the lion’s den of ethical confrontation with the divinely inspired, Enda Kenny might consider re-establishing this profoundly missed body.