At the bottom of this post is a powerful video that asks a fundamental moral question of a new and powerful scientific ability: “Should We?”

One of the great ethical and moral questions that besets us with new technologies, especially medical technologies, is whether our sheer capacity to do something thereby permits us to do that thing. Of course the answer to this ought to be “no.” Ability alone does not permit us to do anything we like.

I, for example, have the capacity, at least physically to do a lot of things I ought not do. I can steal, lie, damage, destroy and kill. Simply being able to do these things, even if I have “my own good reasons” for wanting to do them, does not give me carte blanche to in fact do them.

Groups and nations also have many capacities that they ought not act on. Perhaps one group more powerful than another can force its will on another, or one nation more powerful than another invade and enslave another nation. But again the mere power or capacity to act, does not give the group or nation the simple right to act. And of course the group or nation having the power will claim to have good reasons for doing what they do, but at the end of the day those reasons must judged by others, not merely asserted by the one who has the power.

Power without recognized limits can be a very ugly and destructive thing. And the power or capacity alone to do something is NOT a moral argument.

To some extent, everyone will recognize what has just been said as reasonable. But often, when it comes to science and new technologies, thinking becomes suddenly more fuzzy. This is especially the case in the realm of medicine, and medical technologies such as embryonic stem cell research, genetic manipulation, cloning, and many types of “reproductive” technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.

It will be granted that such matters often involve a lot of technical details that are difficult to understand. It is also understandable that many heart-wrenching issues revolve around such discussions, such as the hope to end disease or to overcome infertility.

But, too frequently we are asked refrain from any moral judgement by proponents of such things, and are often asked to accept the unreasonable notion that we ought to be able to do something merely because we are able to that thing, and the proponents have self-proclaimed good reasons to do it.

But as we saw above, in less heart-wrenching scenarios, mere ability, even if coupled with self-proclaimed good reasons is not alone a worthy moral argument. Many very ugly things have happened in human history on such faulty terms.

Again, let it be clearly stated, the ability to do something does not thereby confer the right to do it. Power does amount to a moral argument, and to the contrary, power often demands greater moral restraint of its possessor.

In the video below, which I hope you get a chance to see, the question is asked. “Should we?” For it would seem that we are close to capacity to bring certain extinct species back to life on this planet. Can we do this? It would seem we are close. But should we? Now THAT is a worthy and necessary moral consideration.

We have generally been conditioned by environmentalists to see extinction as always bad. But perhaps some extinction is necessary and god in the cycle of nature. Who gets to say what particular species might be good to reintroduce and what ones ought not?

Think about it. And think too about the modern moral tendency, especially in medicine to equate capacity with permission and moral rectitude. Many today demand the right to engage in certain scientific procedures and medical interventions simply because we can. Well, we can…but should we?

26 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    It is important to be able to say no…even to things that are potentially fun and exciting. This is something I tell my 5-year old son often.

  2. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    In the case of say an animal or plant that served a beneficial purpose and man was responsible for annihilating it through careless disregard and vain sport, I say if man has the God given knowledge and ability to restore it then go for it. Most things die out due to the destruction of their necessary habitat and environment. Man has a responsibility to correct his mistakes and care for what God has given him in this world. Donor sperm, test tube babies, cloning and fetal stem cell sciences are not necessary for the survival of our species and have rought more havock on human morality and societal behavior as a whole. It creates a more ambiguous answer to the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

  3. Tracey Kelly says:

    Father John Corapi said this over and over (while in good standing with the Church). “The Good Lord gave us freedom to do the right thing, not ‘license’ to do what we want” (or CAN do)

  4. Repent and Believe the Gospel ! says:

    Well, you certainly don’t want to bring back the dinosaurs!

  5. one anonymous says:

    It is called “choice” and God gave it to us so that we would want to choose Him. All the sordid complications that arise from that are the result of choosing something (someone) else.

  6. RichardGTC says:

    Compared to cloning humans for their stem cells, which is an abomination, which I understand recently happened, cloning, or whatever the technique is called with them, passenger pigeons and even dinosaurs is a breath of fresh air and a pleasant and pleasing pastime.

  7. Loreen Lee says:

    Yes, the question of ‘should we’ is essential, because it possibly denies our objective look at ourselves as fallible creatures. But I am also astonished with the idea that this thesis also gives evidence to the possibility of ‘resurrection’ within a scientific jurisdiction. But only because possibly it can serve as a support for the metaphysical/theological belief that is a necessity and sufficient reason of our ‘faith’. Would you agree, or is this stretching the efficacy of science?

  8. Clare says:

    Would you please consider writing a post regarding constructive ways to use will power and aggression? It’s something I’ve been wondering about lately. I’m a girl who happens to have a very strong will. In response to cultural pressure, I stuffed this trait for years and was quite depressed. Now that I’ve realized it’s part of my personality and not inherently a sin, things are much better. So please do not forget to address the female versions of will power and aggression as they are not identical to the male manifestations of these traits.

  9. Don says:

    There are many things that should not be done. For example, human cloning, reviving extinct species, or developing weapons of mass desctriction. What’s scary is that we can’t stop it. Even if we agreed within our own country or culture about what things “go to far”,, the best we can do is legislate against it in the United States, or make treaties with some countries prohibiting these things, or use our power and influence to “discourage” other nations from doing or permitting these things. Unless, however, we are willing (and able) to impose our will on the entire planet, these things are simply unstoppable. They are going to happen because there is always someone, somewhere, who will push the envelope. It can’t be stopped. Unfortunately, what man can do, he will do, whether he should or not. Some men, somewhere, will put themselves in the place of God. It only takes a few, out of a planet containing 7 billion of us. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop it, it just means we are destined to fail.

    • Well, OK, but so far we’ve avoided nuclear annihilation by poor slobs like you and me keeping morality in the mix. Maybe its not time to just give up now.

      • I Like The Church Fathers says:

        “OK, but so far we’ve avoided nuclear annihilation by poor slobs like you and me keeping morality in the mix.”

        This is a good point, but as much as we would like to believe that morality is the reason why nukes have not been used in nearly seventy years, I don’t think it’s true. After all, moral considerations did not prevent nuclear weapons from being created in the first place and they did not prevent Harry Truman from using them twice against Japan in August 1945.

        The more pragmatic and probable reason is the concept of “minimal” nuclear deterrence:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_deterrence

        Of course, with respect to your broader question “should we [have]?”, the clear answer with respect to nuclear weapons is a resounding NO. Nuclear weapons are unspeakably monstrous instruments of destruction of God’s creation.

        The problem is that Nazi Germany [not a particularly moral regime] was known during World War II to be developing plans for nuclear weapons and the U.S. believed it had no choice but to respond by creating weapons of its own.

  10. Don says:

    I am not in favor of giving up!! I am just skeptical (and somewhat sad) about our prospects. But this is where I end up struggling with the precept that “the ends never justify the means.”

    Scenario: A terrorist has planted a bomb in NYC. If it goes off, it will exterminate 10 million people. He has been apprehended but is personally impervious to “enhanced” interrogation techniques. The clock is ticking. The interrogators are told by an informant that, while the terrorist will endure even the worst kind of personal torture for his cause, he could not bear to see his (totally innocent) 5 year-old son tortured in any way. In fact, merely plucking out one or two of the son’s fingernails, in the presence of the terrorist father, would cause him to cough up the location of the bomb immediately. Should the authorities “torture” the innocent 5-year old, in order to save 10 million people? Traditional Catholic moral theology would say “no”, the ends never justify the means.

    How far would we be willing to go to prevent bad people from doing really evil things? Thankfully, we seem to have our limits, though we seem to be stepping over the line quite a bit these days. What makes me sad is that I sense we can’t stop these evil things from happening unless we are willing to become monsters ourselves. Because we have limits, humans will be cloned, species will be revived, weapons of mass destruction will be developed, and on and on…

    • one anonymous says:

      Please remember, we are not alone, we are never alone. Our “prospects” are very very good when we know Christ… very good! I’d like to take part of a sentence you wrote above, quote: “I sense we can’t stop these evil things from happening unless we are willing to become monsters ourselves.” but ask you to replace the word “monsters” with the word “martyrs” … what do you think? We may have to become martyrs to stop the monsters, isn’t that what Christ tells us when He says to follow Him, even to the cross? Evil only really prevails when it takes the soul… be of good cheer, Jesus has conquered the world!!

      Mark 8:36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

      John 16:33 These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

      (John 16:11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.)

      • Don says:

        Excellent point. Replacing “monsters” with “martyrs” changes the entire outlook. Thanks.

      • Don says:

        So, would you pull out a fingernail to save 10 million people?

      • Don says:

        I think I would. Then I would go to confession.

        • one anonymous says:

          This seems the “who would you throw out of the boat to save the rest” question. I would rather go down with the ship, you see because I know that we “are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14) compared to all eternity of Heaven.

          • Don says:

            Even if its just a fingernail or two vs 10 million lives?

            • one anonymous says:

              Here is a great article by Mark Shea on the New Advent website today 6/19 (but you could probably Google it to find it also) – he explains it very well there in his article, much better than I ever could. But I would say to your question that we have to draw the line somewhere or we will ultimately end up drawing the line nowhere. God shows us exactly where to draw the line in our thoughts and actions, and that is precisely “why we can’t do evil so that good may come of it”.

              The Most Popular Moral Heresy in the World
              June 19, 2013
              Consequentialism and why we can’t do evil so that good may come of it.
              Mark P. Shea

  11. John C. Hodge says:

    Technological ethics can be labeled “The Frankenstein Problem”. That is, when the novel was written, the scientist was shunned for “playing God”, by trying to reanimate a dead man. Giving life where none remained. But today, scientists are not shunned, but lauded, for violating ethical principles, engaging in the most dehumanizing and inhuman practices imaginable.

    What underlies it all is a reoccurring theme in the Bible, of arrogant mankind striving to supplant God, to hold themselves up as the center of the universe, the creator of all things. Be it the Tower of Babel, or what scientists do today, it beckons heavenly wrath. Far too many men have become like Nimrod.

  12. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    There are a number of bogus arguments some people use to push an essentially immoral point of view while avoiding any discussion of the issue itself that is being debated.
    For example, “You can’t stop progress.” is a favorite of some people who see all “change” as “progress” and never as regress or decay. But if today I am healthy and tomorrow I have cancer then change for me has become a death sentence. Similarly change in society or culture must be morally directed, not automatically embraced, otherwise change could be a culture’s death sentence.
    Another non-argument argument is to claim something is predestined by the march of history and thus must be embraced or one will be left behind. Sadly, some people are terrified of being out of step with the so-called march of history–even if the steps “forward” are into a bottomless pit of evil.

    • Jennifer says:

      Good points!

    • Don says:

      YES, Deacon John!

      There has unquestionably been an explosion of real social, economic and technological progress in the last century. The good that has been achieved is truly astounding when you think about it. But much of the more recent “social progress” has in fact been “regressive”, as you say. No fault divorce, contraception, abortion on demand, gay marriage. Result: the destruction of families and lives, and the wiping away of the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization.

  13. Andrew J. Decker, III says:

    In our country, whatever is technologically feasible is deemed morally defensible. The uncoupling of morality from God leads to an ethical system in which man confuses the management of processes to maximize pleasure for the pursuit of good and avoidance of evil based on God’s natural law.

  14. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Should we just because we can? Perhaps a look at motivation can help.
    At the present time it only seems that we can bring extinct species back into existance but, this has not been proven by action. But is it OK to take that action? There seem to be two categories here, namely spiecies which have become extinct due to the irresponsable actions of the human race and; species which have become extinct due to influences which we had no direct part in.
    The first group died out, largely because of our inflated egotism as the easily killed (by us) dodo bird was over hunted to show off how much tougher we were; or thought we were.
    A scientist, probably a botanist, noticed something distinctive about a tree that grew in the habitat which the dodo bird had occupied. There were no young trees of this type and, further research showed that the youngest ones had sprouted when there were still dodo birds in abundance. It turned out that the outer shell of the trees’ seeds were cracked by passing through the digestive system of a dodo, thereby allowing the undamaged portion to grow into a new tree as it began by living off the droppings of the bird which encased it. If other animals ate the seed then, in some cases the outer shell remained intact and the seed just sat there. In other cases (larger animals) the seed was too damaged to sprout or, even, had been digested by the raptor.
    Other animals became extinct because the environment had changed into a place in which they could no longer survive and they did not change to handle the environmental changes. They neither had the means to survive the change nor, to deal with the change by making their own change. They were no longer viable. Perhaps the slightly develloped neurological system of the dinosaur was incapable of surviving in an above ground environment but the earthworm (with its ganglia in place of a brain) managed to survive hidden underground.
    So, the tree which is dependant on the dodo is now being artificially maintained but, is that a valid action by those who maintain them? If it was a viable life form shouldn’t a few, with either a slightly weaker than usual or slightly stronger than usual shell casing, have been sprouted by a different symbiote and emerged as a replacement of the previous generations?
    If I were to continue I risk going into so many questions that would confuse the entire matter (until resolved by long long research) but, then there’s some human issues which come to mind.
    If I were to run in a marathon race there are three main places to aim for; first (gold) second (sliver) and third (bronze) When these three are taken and I remain a long ways from the end while numerous runners ahead of me pass the finish line, why would I want to carry on? Well, maybe the first fifty people will qualify for another marathon far in the future. If I qualify then, I will have lots of time to train and be in much better physical condition when I run in the “other” marathon.
    When I’m still a long ways from completion and I hear a loudspeaker announce that over one hundred runners have finished why carry on? A chance to qualify for the other event no longer exists but, I may carry on (back to a slight paraphrase of the title theme) “because I can” Even though there’s no chance to boast about outstanding abilities there’s still a chance to cross that far off line and be able to present a proven, if somewhat simplistic, measure of my basic capabilites. Ego deflated but still somewhat intact as honest self respect due to a level of fitness displayed by facts. A few answers in this one to provide hope.
    Asking self if there’s a dark, evil, self destructive side of “because I can” Well, what if I drive down a main thoroughfare and see another driver do what’s called a rolling stop at a stop sign and carry on into my path and into a position where it is possible for me to stop by hurriedly slamming on the brakes? If I want satisfaction of my self styled righteousness I can exclaim with a long blast of the vehicle horn. On the other hand I could choose to ignore the chance to stop and slam into the other driver. He/she ran a stop sign and, not a red light so, there’s a false impression that I could do nothing to prevent the crash and it’s all the other driver’s fault (deceit for egotism and the Ninth Commandment, perhaps as a sin of omission) When observers focussed and came running up I could scream out painful declarations of back, and other, pains which do not exist in order to get a larger personal injury payment than is appropriate as I steal from the fund for valid claims (Eighth Commandment)
    Many of the contributors of the blog could, almost certainly, come up with many similar examples of why “because we can” is not, in itself, a good motive.

  15. Joelle says:

    The title is similar to this way of thinking, “just because you can wear it doesn’t mean you should.” Or, “just because you can be anything you want, doesn’t mean you should.”

    Critical thinking is not taught enough!

Leave a Reply