Ethics is a fluctuating principle. Which is unethical in the first place as it is a set of conventional principles that should always be right. Ethics is as illusionary as religion; they both want to make you believe that by following a certain path, you will be able to maintain a clear conscience. No action is clearly good though, or clearly bad, if you take into account all the possible outcomes. Today I especially want to talk about ethical questions that have come about through new technologies.
Many people are appalled by gene editing, artificial intelligence (AI) advancement and the creation of new kind of drugs. But if we put these technologies in perspective with our actions of the past or today, we can see that they do not bring anything new. And no one questions the ethics of these previous actions. My goal is not to support these new technologies. I just want to broader the spectrum and bring people to question the way they see the world. There is never one way of seeing things, and there is never a good without a potential bad. Nothing is ethical.
Is there an ethical difference between a country operating targeted drone attacks killing hundreds of innocents and a terrorist organization perpetrating attacks and killing hundreds of innocents? Is there an innocent less innocent in ethics? You might think getting a rescued cat is ethical. But like all ethical things, it is only ethical if you do not think about what surrounds the choice. Cats are killers. They kill a large amount of other animals. Is it ethical to adopt an animal who will kill other animals because of your action? And cats need to eat meat products. So the food that you are buying for your cat is made with animal by-products, which does not help the cause of the killing of other animals for food.
Speaking about food, what is the difference between a turkey, which has been bred for years – aka genetically modified over time – to have the fattest possible one and a salmon to which we have added genes to make it grow faster? To push it further, we are, as humans, genetically modified organisms. This modification just happened over a long period of time and we call it natural selection. The only difference is that now we are capable of making the modifications ourselves on animals, plants or viruses to support our needs. And we are going to see this happen more and more in humans. We have been capable of making a “3-way baby” – sperm, egg and mitochondria from 3 different persons – thanks to modifications. We have fetuses checked for some genetic diseases, we have therapies which can correct gene mutations. Genetics are part of our environment whether we notice it or not.
Abortion is legal in many countries until week 20 ish. We can know the sex of the fetus at week 12, should it be legal to abort a fetus because of its sex? If we consider that fetuses are not a living person yet, should we really care? Is there a difference with aborting because the fetus shows signs of Down Syndrome – knowing that 5% are false positive -? Just FYI, I do not contest the right of abortion. It’s not my body. But these terminations have nothing to do with women’s rights. They want a baby, just not that one. Gene editing could solve this issue by attacking the problem at the source. Would it be more ethical to modify an embryo or to have an abortion? We can expect that in the near future, we will be able to safely modify humans’ genes to change attributes. I am just trying to put in perspective this “new” science. If we want to judge its ethics, we need to judge the ethics of breeding. No one ever wonders how dogs came to exist in some 350 breeds. There is nothing natural about it. We modified them to have the strongest, the fastest, the cutest (I guess they missed all of them for pugs lol). This is gene modification even though no one went to cut inside the genome. And most people who have dogs do not care about this dilemma. They just care about having cute puppies.
In the same sense, plants have been bred for hundred of years to improve our agriculture. There is a scientific consensus on the fact that GMOs are as safe as bred plants – for human consumption -. Is it ethical to question this fact when you are making fun of the Climate change deniers? Moreover, we never really tried to breed humans because of ethics. In our whole history, we have treated some races, religions or people as inferior for diverse reasons. We have done what we could to avoid these people to mate so that they don’t share their supposedly “bad” genes. But we never acted on the idea to mate the smartest, strongest or cutest humans just like we do with other animals. We think about taking the embryos of the most productive milk cow, but no one ever debated taking Einstein’s sperm. The gene scissors could allow us to do that “breeding” virtually. Shouldn’t we try to get our species to the best level we can? It is weird to think that we can engineer a “better” human, but should we stop it? We did it with animals, we did it with plants. The question is not whether we can or can’t or whether we should or shouldn’t. In any case it is going to happen. We can’t stop progress for ever. We need to figure out a way to do it in the best way.
In its own way, the development of AI is going to set many ethical questions, too. Many different scientists say that we should be able to reach an AI as smart as a human as soon as 2040 (must read – Tim Urban article about that). And from there it shouldn’t take long for it to get smarter than us. When we see how we have treated other humans or the way we treat other animals, we can wonder how this new intelligent being will treat us. Or we can be scared of who will be in possession of such a powerful tool. People like Elon Musk or Stephen Hawkins try to warn us with the future potential – or the potential future – of AIs. There are real dangers as well as real hopes with this development. If we can control this technology, we could get cures for incurable diseases, understand the world that surrounds us, and improve our way of living. But would it be controllable? Would it listen to us? We have AIs everywhere already. We have Siri listening to us when we have our phone or our computer with us, we have Alexa listening to us when we are in our home, add to this all the information we purposely leave online on Facebook or Amazon or our DNA at Ancestry. Something as innocent as a Rumba vacuum can be mapping our home and use the data for anything. All of these machines are linked through a network connection. And we will soon let them control – with almost no supervision – part or all of our transportations, our manufacturing, our armies. Hackers can get into our car, phone or computer. AIs will, too. It’s bad enough companies, governments or hackers have access to this information, what about an AI whose motives or leading forces are unknown? People make fun of a scenario like in Terminator but some humans already think that there are too many humans on Earth, why wouldn’t a Supreme being built by humans think the same?
While AIs will have 100% access of what they have learned or experienced, we cannot say the same about us. Isn’t our brain altering memories in some cases on its own? It is everyone’s experience that sometimes we remember things without all the details in mind. It has been proven that we can implant fake memories into people only by manipulating discussions. We are capable of making someone think that she experienced a traumatic event or that she now likes a vegetable more than she did previously. We don’t remember everything that ever happened to us, our brain makes a selection without our authorization. Of all the things that happened to me 10 months ago, I remember some clearly and other less clearly. Why is that? It is a fact that our memories are out of our control. At least consciously. It is true that what we experience is what makes us, but can we blame someone who suffers from PTSD to want to alter a traumatic event whether it’s through a drug or a therapy? If events that I forgot, whether purposefully or not, makes who I am, why wouldn’t an altered memory still make you, you? Moreover, if we are capable of manipulating the brain of someone, should we? The issue of therapy vs drugs is the same as the issue of breeding vs gene editing. If the end goal is the same, why distrust one vs the other? Smoking is bad for the smokers, the people around them and the healthcare system. If we could make people quit smoking with some kind of drug, should we do it for their own good? Could we force someone to be treated against their own will to save their lifespan and the state some money? In many countries, we have raised the prices of cigarettes and forbidden the ads for them because we know that these steps will make it less likely for someone to start smoking. Isn’t that considered manipulation? Why not go one step further and do the kind of manipulation that we know works for good – i.e. drug treatment -? Or why not forbid the sale of cigarettes completely? Is it freedom if what you see is what I want you to see and not everything that is out there? And what if you have all the knowledge you need to make a “good” decision, you still make a “bad” decision? Should I feel ethically bonded to force you into making the right – i.e. the one I want you to make – decision? With the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, as the shooter was non muslim and didn’t have apparent ties to ISIS, we claim that he must be mentally ill. Even though we might never know what motivated that guy, why couldn’t someone who claims doing something for ISIS be as crazy as that white guy? Could their mental illness makes them not guilty? We are getting better and better at understanding a relationship between genes, brain and behaviour or diseases. It is a possibility that a certain combination of genes is controlling addiction, violence, depression, etc. So should we be considered responsible for these? Am I what I am because I chose to be what I am or am I just a combination of nature and nurture without my control?