All scientific discoveries or new technologies can be used to either help or harm others. For example, a smartphone makes it possible to stay in touch and share photos of friends and family, but it also enables bullying or viewing unhelpful images. Science tells us how the world works, and technology offers a range of possible applications of that knowledge, but neither can tell us what we ought to do.
So how can we make ethical decisions about completely new technologies such as human gene editing or driverless cars? It is important to get past our initial reactions: the ‘yuk!’ or ‘wow!’ we might intuitively feel when we learn of a face transplant or a rocket launch. These feelings may well be moderated or changed once we learn more about the science and other factors behind a new development, thinking carefully about it from different angles, preferably in conversation with a number of others who have different experiences or expertise.
Ethical thinking can be divided into three main categories. First, is the consequentialist approach. This way of thinking is demonstrated in Proverbs, when Wisdom calls young men to consider the outcome of their actions. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialist ethic that tries to maximise the greatest good for the largest number of people affected, and often plays a part in public policy. If ethics are purely utilitarian, however, they can leave minorities out in the cold. The Christian, on the other hand, might say that the ultimate consequence is to glorify God by loving him and our neighbour, but other ways of ethical thinking are important in achieving that outcome.
Duty or law-based (deontological) ethics start with intrinsic values, asking what is the correct course of action, or what is our duty? These values or laws might be God-given moral values or worked out by human reason, such as the four principles that are commonly used in ethical decisions today: respect for autonomy; do no harm; try to do good; and seek justice. The Bible provides its own simplified form of law in the ten commandments. In practice, following deontological ethics alone can also create difficulties. It is possible to do great harm while obeying the letter of the law, especially if the person involved is asking ‘What can I get away with?’ Also, what happens when rules collide? For example, when resources are limited, who should be treated first?
Virtue ethics ask, what sort of person should I be, and how can I act in the spirit of the law? There are plenty of broad Biblical principles to guide virtuous living, such as:
- We are made in the ‘image of God’. This supports the value and dignity of every human life (e.g., Genesis 1:26–27, Genesis 9:6, James 3:9–10).
- Each individual is important, regardless of their abilities and whether these are genetically based or otherwise. (e.g., Galatians 3:26–29, Romans 12:4–8).
- Love your neighbour as yourself, look to the interests of others. (e.g., Mark 12:31, Philippians 2:3–4).
- It’s necessary to protect and care for the vulnerable. (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:18).
- Care for the suffering. (e.g., Matthew 25:31–46).
- Children are gifts from God. (e.g., Psalms 127:3a).
Virtue ethics are about building character and growing in wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit, recognising that the right decision can at times vary depending on the circumstances (and at times it may even run counter to the law). For example, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic some surgeries that would normally have been considered urgent were cancelled in order to prioritise caring for acutely ill COVID patients. These are difficult decisions for which there is not always a single right answer. The question is, can we trust ourselves and others to behave virtuously in every circumstance? The Christian is aware of human sinfulness and our need of God to redeem, help and guide us in all these situations
Ultimately, no single rule or principle will work in every situation. Science and technology bring up new questions virtually every day, and we can’t always rely on old precedents to answer them. If we want to move forward in thinking and acting ethically we will have to take a nuanced approach, drawing on the best of the ethical principles available to us. The five Cs are one way to help guide decisions, bringing a number of different types of ethical thinking into the mix.
- Clarify the facts and key questions.
- Consider our choices: what could we achieve?
- External – what must we do?
- Internal – how should we behave?
- Compare the pros and cons of each approach.
- Choose what is best, with all parties in mind.
We have to recognise that the data available to us will change over time, our knowledge of God and his word will keep growing, and we cannot always avoid making mistakes, so the decisions we make will need to be revisited from time to time.
Thankfully, there are often experts willing to publish accessible resources on the more specialist issues – and that is part of the work of The Faraday Institute. Each reader will of course need to evaluate ethical thinking from the point of view of the core beliefs of their denomination or church. Some denominations even produce their own publications on contemporary ethical issues. It’s also worth paying attention to science fiction, which explores the technologies that may well be with be with us in the future. As scientific knowledge grows and technologies follow suit, we will need to develop the habit of setting aside time to reflect and respond in practical ways to the new issues raised, helping both people and the rest of creation to flourish as God intended.
Sources and further reading
Keith Fox, Bioethical Challenges for Christian Leaders (lecture)
Giles Cattermole, Medical Ethics for Beginners
Articles and podcasts from Christian medical ethicist Dr John Wyatt
Andrew Perrett, Bioethics (lecture, The Faraday Institute, November 2020)
John Bryant & Linda Baggott la Velle, Introduction to Bioethics, 2nd Edition (Wiley Blackwell, 2010)
TL Beauchamp & JF Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 8th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2019)