A Guide to Ethical Innovation

When we are on a cutting edge issue as a society, when you think about reproducing and whether you are going to genetically modify your offspring, when you think about modifying yourself and whether it’s okay to take an attention-enhancing drug. You’re involved in the conversation about ethics. We’re all involved in that conversation.  Ethics is negotiated by a society.  I talk to you, you talk to your friends, we read an op-ed article, we watch a television show, we’re on the Web, and this information flow goes back and forth, the kinds of debates friends have standing next to the water cooler or in the bar.  That’s all part of the ethical conversation that a society has.  

And through that, societies begin to negotiate a kind of ethical mood, and hopefully what happens is that ethical mood gets transmitted to our courts, to our legislatures, to the people who actually make the decisions.  And when they go too far outside that ethical mandate they’re given, the people let them know and then you have the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or whatever the movement might be at that moment.

When it comes to biological innovations, nobody gets to make that call directly.  You may think that some innovation is unethical, you may think we shouldn’t be using embryos, for instance, and you have a right to make that claim in the public forum. You have a right to lobby your legislators. But I think what’s going to end up happening for wide swaths of biotechnology is they’re going to basically go unregulated.  And what’s going to happen is that what is going to control those biotechnologies will be popular opinion and what society tolerates.  And what that means, of course, is you’re going to get a wide range of behaviors as we already have in different countries and even in different states.  

So if you take stem cell research for example right now, the 50 United States have very, very different policies in each state.  If you look at the European Union, which was a union that was supposed to be put together to create common policy, all of those countries have completely different ideas about how we use embryos, whether you can create embryos for research, whether you can take them from fertility clinics.  So nobody really knows yet, nobody really understands yet.  There’s no consensus yet as to how we should think about a lot of these biotechnologies.  It’s what we’re working out.  

And as societies begin to converge toward some consensus, that’s when you’re going to really begin to see a convergence of policy.  In the meantime, conservative countries, like Germany that are very worried about biotechnology, they’ll have bans on a lot of this stuff.  The UK also in the European Union has a very open policy toward these things.  We’re very confused as a world and as a society about how to think about the enormous power of these biotechnologies.

And I think it’s a very good thing because it keeps the argument going. It means that we have little micro experiments in different states, in different countries.  Some countries are trying some things, some countries aren’t.  When we really step over a line, people will respond and they’ll stop it.  We have a basically a ban on human reproductive cloning all over the world. There’s some rogue individuals who may be trying to do it, but no states are trying to do it.  

There’s already been some reaction to some of the things, for example, that China is doing that some other countries don’t like and they’re trying to put pressure on China to not to do those things.  And I think that’s how it’s going to go.  And we’re eventually going to reach some sense of global agreement on what kinds of things are within and kinds of things are without the range of acceptable behaviors around biotechnology.  But it’s so new and it has changed so rapidly that that’s going to take a while. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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