Science in Christian Perspective
Human Engineering and Christian Ethical Values
MILLARD J. ERICKSON
Bethel Theological Seminary
St. Paul, Minnesota 55112
From: JASA 30 (March 1978):16-19.
The bio-medical revolution has produced techniques with great potential for affecting the nature and behavior of man. Accompanying this power, however, are grave ethical problems. Our knowledge of techniques of human control has not been accompanied by equal wisdom in the employment of these techniques. The Christian, however, has a high stake in the application of such methodologies.
There are three basic methods of arriving at ethical conclusions: the legalistic, the situational, and the principial. Of these three, only the principial seems to hold promise of being of help to us in solving these problems. Accordingly, we must ask what principles the Christian faith supplies us. Among the pertinent ones are man's role as a dominion-haver, the importance of freedom, truth, and the significance of individuals.
In July, 1975, a group of scientists, theologians, and ethicists gathered at Wheaton, Illinois, in an International Conference on Human Engineering and the Future of Man. Here evangelical Christians grappled with ethical problems growing out of three areas of human engineering: genetic control, brain control, and behavior manipulation.
The necessity of such a gathering is a tribute to man's success, not his failure. The progress of man in natural sciences and behavioral sciences has given him an increased ability to understand, affect, and control human behavior and even human nature. For this we should be properly appreciative. Man's ethical understanding has not progressed at an equal pace, however. How to handle the problems produced by our improved technologies-this is the real issue.
It is encouraging that evangelical Christians gathered to discuss these issues at this stage of the development of the problems. Too often the Christian church has had little to say about great ethical issues during the formative period, perhaps because Christians were unaware of the real issues at that time. Then when someone began to apply the insights and methods in ways offensive to Christian morality, Christians protested. The issues are still at the stage where public policy is being determined, and can be affected by our input.
Nature of the Problem
Let us utilize for a moment the technique sometimes employed in movies and books, referred to as 'flash
back." Consider the following alternating scenes which move between biblical incidents and contemporary ethical problems. It might go something like this:
Scene 1. Gideon believes that Jehovah God is leading him into battle with the Midianites. He wants to ascertain that God is really going to deliver Israel by his hand. To determine this definitely, he places a fleece on the ground and asks God to show him if He will d0 this, by making the fleece wet and the surrounding ground dry, and then reversing the process, making the fleece dry and the ground wet. This God does, and Gideon goes out to defeat the Midianites.
Scene 2. A young couple sit with their family doctor, as he interprets for them the results of their genetic screening test. Carefully he explains to them that should they decide to have children, there is a 25% possibility that any child born to them will have cystic fibrosis. What should they do, they wonder. Ought they to proceed, or not?
Scene 3. A man is brought before a judge of Israel, charged with having killed another man. Calmly and carefully the judge determines the facts of the ease. Witnesses testify that this one did indeed take the life of the other. There is no evidence that this was an act of self-defense, or an accident. Quickly the verdict is reached and announced: the law says this man must die.
Scene 4. A lecturer is sharing with an audience the possibilities of electronic stimulation of the brain. He pictures for them a situation in which a group of demonstrators advances upon City Hall to present their grievances to the mayor. Only a group of unarmed police stand between them and their goal. The police chief presses a button on a small radio transmitter in his hand. The protestors stop. He pushes another button and, like the bull in Jose Delgado's experiment, the group turns and obediently trots away.' They were responding to an electrical signal sent to a control center of their brains via electrodes surgically implanted during an earlier imprisonment. Now, the lecturer asks, is this type of control right and legitimate, or is it improper?
Scene 5. Jesus and the Pharisees are engaged in heated debate about the observance of the Sabbath. The charge raised by the Pharisees is that Jesus and his disciples have broken the Sabbath. They have performed miracles of healing on the Sabbath day. They have also on another occasion been guilty of gathering food on the Sabbath. These activities constitute labor, and violate the law, which says that the Sabbath is a day of rest, and no labor is to be done on it. "No,' says Jesus, "you have misunderstood. The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
Scene 6. Two parents of an elementary school child are discussing with the school principal the educational philosophy and methodology employed in the school. Because incentives are employed to encourage certain types of activity, the parents believe the children are being manipulated.
It is confusing, is it not? Were we able to have an actual sound-and-sight presentation, it would be even more bewildering. The sudden shifts between the biblical world and that of virtual science fiction seem strange indeed, because of the radical differences between those two worlds, both of which may seem rather foreign to most of us. They highlight however the problem faced by those who would be responsible biblical Christians, trying to live with one foot in the Bible and the other in this strange world of developing issues. How does the Christian relate the teachings of the Word of God to these problems? The selection of a style of ethical decision-making must precede the actual determination of solutions to any of those problems. Several different approaches to applying the Bible to ethical problems have been suggested, and are currently being practiced by various Christians.
Types of Ethical Methodologies
One of these is sometimes referred to as the legalistic approach. It attempts to derive specific absolute statements from Scripture, in the fashion in which a prohibition of murder is deduced from Exodus 20:13, "You shall not kill" (murder). On this method of treatment, unexceptionable rules can be established on a one-to-one basis, from Scripture.
The problem with this approach for our purposes is that it is exceedingly difficult to find biblical statements which can be employed in this fashion. The situations which we are considering here did not arise in Biblical
Once the enduring ethical principles of Scripture have been found and extracted, these must be carried over from biblical settings and related to contemporary situations.
times, nor were they even imagined then. Theft problems were not sufficiently
similar to these cases that we could simply treat the latter as instances of the
former. This method scarcely can succeed.
The second major option is situationism. This would ask, with respect to any issue, "what is the most loving thing to do?"2 On these grounds, nothing is really right or wrong in itself. Anything, even murder or adultery, is potentially good and right and is made so by whether it most fully embodies and expresses agape love. The problem with this approach, however, is that it is insufficiently concrete to be of real help. What really is the most loving course of action? Without knowing what is best for man, without being able to distinguish clearly the different courses of action and knowing their consequences, it is very difficult to choose among them. The problems connected with situationism and its calculating method have been elaborated at considerable length in several places. The dilemma seems to be that situationism either slips into a new kind of legalism on the one hand, or else is unable to make any objective ethical judgments, on the other.3"
The third method of ethical decision-making is principialism. This maintains that there are objective sources of ethical guidance in the biblical revelation, but that these are found (for our present purposes) not in concrete rules, but in principles which are more numerous than simply the general principle, "act in the most
oving way."4 This would seem to be the only approach available to us that can give us any real guidance.
In this principial method, the concrete forms of biblical ethical injunctions are not absolutized as they appear in the Scriptures. Rather, an attempt is made to determine the underlying principle upon which a command or prohibition is based. This will be more general than a rule or law. In some cases the principle will be so closely tied to the particular rule in which it is embodied in Scripture as to be virtually identical with it, but often this is not the case. The principle will be of a timeless character while specific biblical rules may be culture-bound.
Once the enduring ethical principles of Scripture have been found and extracted, these must be carried over from biblical settings and related to contemporary situations, Often this will mean that two or more ethical principles will bear upon a given situation, and the relative weight of these will have to be determined, and the principles combined into new currently appropriate guidelines or directives. This will not be easily done, but it is extremely important.
The aim of the remainder of this paper is consequently to trace out some of the salient biblical and theological principles that bear upon the decisions encountered in the areas which have been presented to us. At some points we suggest implications of these principles for the ethical decisions, but for the most part we offer these only as aids and suggestions to be incorporated into our decision-making.
Pertinent Ethical Principles
As the psalmist contemplates what man is and does he shows both pleasure and amazement (Psa. 139:14). And well he might, for man is truly the summit of God's earthly creation. He, of all the creatures, is described as being in the image and likeness of God. In the creative genius of man both man and God are glorified, for it is God who is the source of all man's positive powers, and who has entrusted to him the abilities which we see displayed in the activities of knowledge gathering and control. The knowledge explosion of the past few decades is virtually overwhelming in its depth and magnitude. With knowledge goes power, the power to predict and control, especially as the potential for applying it to man increases. In the techniques of human engineering there is great possibility either for good or for evil. Man may employ this to magnify and heighten his likeness to God, or to negate this Godlikeness.
Care and caution are required in these endeavors, because man is limited in his understanding. He possesses the ability to discover truth which he does not have the wisdom to apply. Although the technology is morally neutral, man's finiteness means that he might unintentionally do harm with it. The inventors of thalidomide undoubtedly intended that their discovery should bring only good results, but were unable to anticipate some of its side effects. Further, the Bible teaches that man is a sinner, both by birth and by choice. Consequently, there is considerable likelihood that he will pervert good into evil by misapplying it.
When God created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, He commanded him to have dominion over every living thing (Gen. 1:26-28). This Christian doctrine of dominion-having has sometimes been blamed for the ecological crisis which threatens to overwhelm our world.5 Supposedly, the command to have dominion has instead been understood to mean to dominate, so that man has exploited and plundered the creation. This, however, is a misunderstanding of the nature of the command. In its background is the concept of the sovereign or monarch in ancient Israel.6 The ruler there was not to dominate the people for his own self-aggrandizement. Rather, his position was a trust given him in which he would use his authority in such a way as to develop the kingdom for the maximum benefit of his subjects. He ruled for their sake, not for his own. Thus man as dominion-bayer is not to extract all that he can from nature for his own satisfaction. Instead, he should seek to understand it in order to develop it to its maximum potential, that it may fulfill God's intended plan for it. Thus, if we conceive the command to have dominion as including the study, understanding, and control of those aspects of man which he shares with the rest of creation, it is essential that this be done for the benefit and development of man, never for his exploitation.
Three other biblical concepts that bear upon the question of human engineering are freedom, truth and the importance of individuals. These are part of the nature of God Himself, and part of what He expects of man.
The freedom of man is assumed everywhere in Scripture. This is particularly evident in God's dealings with him. Each person is given the opportunity of choosing to accept or reject God's offer of grace. Never is he coerced. When Jesus related to persons, He respected their freedom. In the case of John the Baptist (Luke 7:18-23), He did not threaten or cajole. He did not simply assert His authority and demand response. He presented John with the evidences and let him make his own decision. Rather than creating a set of robots or manipulating men, God took the risk of giving them genuine freedom, knowing that some would abuse it.
This means that in human engineering, care will be taken to preserve that same human freedom. Freedom, unfortunately, is one of those slippery words which frequently are simply used undefined. It would seem to mean at least that the person should be as aware as possible of the factors which are influencing his decisions and behavior. Hence, any type of control through electrical stimulation, like that envisioned by Delgado7 (improbable though it may be) would seem to be improper. Here the person would be driven by factors which he does not understand and with which he cannot cope. Similarly, none of these techniques should be employed upon a person unless he has freely given his consent, or if he is permanently incapable of doing so, someone else responsible for him has given such consent. In some areas such as genetic control, it is difficult to judge whether an encroachment upon the freedom of the person is involved, or whether it is rather a ease of actually constituting him what he is to he. Here it would seem that the parents at least should make the decision.
In this connection we should also note again the dominion-having referred to earlier. This role was assigned to Adam, the head of the human race, who at this point was actually the entire race. The word Adam is not only a proper name. It is also a Hebrew noun, meaning man. Thus the command was given not just to an individual or to part of the human race, but to all mankind. All persons have this privilege and authority. It is therefore wrong for one person or group to exercise dominion over another individual or group, in such a way as to deprive them of their dominion-having. On these grounds, slavery is clearly wrong. The same is true of any form of control in which one's human initiative is surrendered to another. We must be certain that any techniques adopted and employed do not violate the basic rights of persons.
Another significant issue is truth. Basic to the very nature of God is this matter of veracity. He always represents things as they really are. Similarly, He expects that man will seek to know things as they truly are and will represent them that way. God is the author of reality, and truth basically is genuine contact with that reality, or knowing it as it is. The devil is the ultimate source of error or of deception, which is a misapprehension of reality. Experiencing reality correctly is therefore good, for it in effect puts one into relationship with God's works. Thus processes and procedures which conduce to a more correct experience of reality would be good while those which lead him to experiences which are not faithful to the way things really are must be regarded as bad.
All human emotions have their proper place. It is appropriate to feel any of them in certain situations. Anger, fear, depression, elation, excitement should be felt in certain circumstances, but not in others. Any type of technology or control which helps the person experience an emotion appropriate to the situation is right and ought to be practiced, while any control which produces emotions for which there is no objective basis ought to be avoided. Hence, a frontal lobotomy which eliminates irrational fears would (on this criterion) be permissable, while a person simply pushing a button endlessly to produce feelings of euphoria when there is no real basis for such feeling, or even in the face of stimuli which ought to produce the contrary reaction, would be illegitimate.
Part of the reason is this. Emotions, like physical pain, can be used by God to alert us to situations we might otherwise overlook. For example, depression, fear, or anger call our attention to a situation needing to be dealt with. If the person has been so affected that he does not feel these emotions in the presence of the objective circumstances which ought to call them forth, he may fail to cope with them, and harm may come either to him or to someone else. In this sense, our control or engineering ought to be aimed at contributing to and enhancing fully informed response to reality, rather than detracting from it.
We also note the importance of each individual person to God. Jesus indicated this in numerous ways: In His statement that no sparrow can fall to the ground without the knowledge of the father, and that we are of more value than many sparrows (Matt. 10:28-31); in His declaration that God knows even the number of the hairs of our heads (Matt. 10:30); in the parable of the lost sheep, in which 99 were safely inside the fold, but the shepherd left them to go and seek the one lost sheep (Luke 15:30). All of these indicate that each individual is an end in himself, valuable to God. Each ought to be treated that way, not as a means to the end of another's welfare. Thus, it would be wrong to experiment upon a person, even if many other persons might benefit from it, unless that person fully understands what is being done and why, and has given his informed consent. This means that extra precautions must be taken with populations which are under a certain amount of constraint, such as the military and prison inmates. The CIA's experimentation with LSD upon certain of its employees is particularly reprehensible on these grounds.
Having noted these several cautions and limitations upon our attempts at human engineering, we must see the nature of the positive responsibilities which we have in this connection. Among the values taught and practiced by Jesus were such qualities as compassion and mercy. Frequently, Jesus Himself healed those who came to Him with diseases. He still works miraculously on some occasions. He has, however, also given us medical science and a host of allied disciplines as means to the continuation of His ministry of mercy. Therefore as His agents we should employ every legitimate means to alleviate suffering, or preferably, to prevent it.
There is a particular responsibility to refine and develop these techniques and to make persons aware of their availability. For example, genetic control properly applied has great potential for preventing some of the serious genetically linked diseases such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and PKU. The Christian has a stake in encouraging research in genetic screening, in order to develop tests for additional diseases, and more accurate tests for those which can be tested for. Those who are in a position to influence prospective parents, such as pastors doing premarital counselling, should inform them of the possible dangers of genetic defects, particularly where indicated by family history, and the availability of screening. The principle of freedom mentioned earlier however, indicates that the decision to avail themselves of this information and the action to be taken upon it should he made by the persons themselves.
A problem arises in connection with cases where the actions of persons will affect the welfare of others. In the example above, the parents are making a decision which may bring into existence a child who will experience a great deal of suffering, or who will be a severe economic burden upon society. At what point society should intervene for the benefit of others is a question which cannot easily be determined.
In brief, it would seem that the use of these techniques to remove defective or diseased conditions is permissable or even desirable, while attempts to produce some superior qualities or even a superior breed of human beings would be considerably less justifiable. Problematic is the question of just what is "normal," and what is not. Without an answer to this question, the line between the therapeutic and the superadditive is exceedingly difficult to draw.
The possible spiritual value of human engineering ought not to be overlooked, either. Frequently, the Christian's need to grow in the qualities that constitute Christian character requires more than merely instruction in Christian matters. The connection between truth understood and believed, and the actual behavior of the person frequently is imperfect. This means that irrational factors modify the response of that person. Maturity would mean the reduction or elimination of these factors. It would therefore seem proper to use psychological and other means to help bring about a functioning connection between beliefs and actions. These should not be regarded as a substitute for or competition with the grace of God. Rather, they should be considered means through which He can and does work.
Excessive optimism about the spiritual accomplishments of human engineering should be avoided, however. Some, such as Delgado, have expected to be able to accomplish considerable changes in the human race.8 There will never be spiritual salvation by genetic, brain, or behavior control. The problem of sin runs deep in man: it will be rectified only by that direct, supernatural act of God which Jesus referred to as the "new birth."
1Jose M. it. Delgado, Physical Control of the Mind Toward a Psychocivilized Society (New York; Harper and Row, Publishers, 1969).
2Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966).
3Paul Ramsey, Deeds and Rules in Christian Ethics (New York: Scribner, 1967, pp. 159-176.
4Millard J. Erickson, Relativism in Contemporary Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), pp. 129-153.
5Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," The Environmental Handbook, ed. Garrett de Bell (New York: Ballentine Books, 1970), p. 26.
6Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 921-2.
?Delgado, Op. Cit., 1969, pp. 184 ff.
8lbid, part V.