High tech hubris: When a person becomes a product

Posted: Jun 05, 2003 12:00 AM

Conservatives are winning the argument. Anybody who watches the Democratic candidates for president can see and hear the donkeys braying, usually at each other, and reacting, not acting. Like it or not, the creative ideas in foreign policy and on the domestic front are coming from the right.

That means that conservatives are updating themselves. By definition, conservative means conserving what works, measured through time against absolute values of right and wrong. That leaves lots of room for debate over what's absolute, which is why conservatives argue with one another as they confront the future together. The debate, though often irritating, sharpens the mind and ultimately public policy.

But there's a unique problem confronting conservatives today who use a map of morality to drive their ideas. You can find it at the intersection of modern politics and modern science. It's called bio-ethics. The hyphenated word covers a multitude of sins and virtues that bump into each other at rapid speed, rendering debate dark and difficult. But help may be close at hand.

Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank whose purpose resides in its name, has begot a new quarterly called The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. The first issue illuminates some of the potholes, detours and cul-de-sacs that make driving hazardous for conservatives.

The journal takes its name from the fable by Francis Bacon, published in 1627. Bacon argued that science would improve human life, but he hinted that social, moral and political difficulties would confront a society shaped by scientific attempts to seize control of nature.

We've entered a world of high-tech hubris that Francis Bacon couldn't have envisaged, but where the questions he raised accelerate down that slope made slippery by the science and technology that enhances human aspiration while at the same time threatens to dehumanize the culture - or destroy it.

Household robots are harmless enough as vacuum cleaners and may even help an old person change a light bulb, but do we want humanoid robots as "companions" to the elderly? We know that women can sometimes now give birth in their sixth decade with the help of in-vitro fertilization, but is that reason enough for them to do it?

Crucial to the New Atlantis debate is "the paradox of conservative bio-ethics," as defined by editor Yuval Levin. "Conservatism traditionally leans on and seeks to protect the implicit wisdom contained in age-old institutions and social arrangement," writes Levin, emphasizing that such arguments depend on accepted sentiments, intuitions and taboos inherited through the ages.

But scientists working in the laboratory with test tubes and petri dishes are not inhibited by traditional views, and the public, in its desire for better pills and treatments and more perfect babies, grows impatient with moral attitudinizing.

Conservatives must link data with values to make a cohesive argument. They have done this in the "pro-life" debate buttressed by information from the womb, as seen on a sonogram. That's not a "thing" swimming on the screen, but a baby girl or baby boy.

"The present task of a conservative bio-ethics," writes Levin, "must be to develop and articulate a coherent worldview - to put meat on the bones of loosely defined terms like 'human dignity' and 'Brave New World' and turn ethical disquiet into public arguments."

Conservatives can find support in this quest from the left, too. Bill McKibben, in his new book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, argues that genetically enhanced babies, tailored to specific skills, turn persons into products with a built-in obsolescence. In the high-tech race for stronger athletes, smarter thinkers, and more skillful musicians, artists and writers, we are bent on "species suicide."

McKibben tells how certain athletes abused a drug that enhanced endurance but at great price: "Elite cyclists started dropping dead across their handlebars, their hearts unable to pump the sludge running through their veins." Yet in 1995, when researchers asked 200 Olympic hopefuls if they would take a drug that would guarantee them a five-year winning streak and then kill them, almost half said yes.

Only an ostrich would deny that we've entered an age of coarsening debate about the value of life. We have reduced a dying person to what Leon Kass, chairman of the president's Council on Bioethics, calls "thinghood," objectifying the body connected to a plug. We think of the most sensitive subjects of life and death in technical rather than human terms.

Technology is a tool that can be helpful and hurtful, but it requires vision and veracity. New Atlantis says it wants to be at the center of redefining politics for the technological age - "by helping scientists, policymakers, and citizens deal more wisely and more creatively with the promise and perils of our nation's future."

Let's hope.