Series discusses ethics of technology

Dr. Justin Barnard, director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship, introduces Dr. C. Ben Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy, during a Town & Gown lecture series held in Harvey Hall, Feb. 17. | Photo by Deanna Santangelo

By Samantha Adams

Bio-technology at the beginning and end of the human life spectrum was the topic of the first lecture in the spring 2011 “Culture and Technology” Town and Gown lecture series, Feb. 24.

It would be an understatement to say the pace of technological change is staggering, Dr. Justin Barnard, associate professor of philosophy at Union, said as an introduction to the lecture which began the series.

Directors of scholarly centers take turns coordinating the series. Barnard said that as director of the Carl F. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship he has been planning this series for several months.

The purpose of the four lectures is to hear from professors who are assessing technology’s affect on culture, Barnard said.

“Ironically, despite the fact that institutions of higher education are committed to thinking, we rarely take time to think about whether adopting various technologies is, in fact, in the best interest of our institutional mission,”

Barnard said. “Being ‘future-directed’ means that we need to give serious thought to the kind of future that embodies the kingdom of God.”

Weather conditions kept Dr. Read Schuchardt, associate professor of media ecology at Wheaton (Ill.) College from giving the first lecture Feb. 10. As a result, the Feb. 17 lecture by Dr. C. Ben Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at Union and editor of Ethics & Medicine, started the series.

Mitchell discussed the arguments for and against the use of gene-altering biotechnology.

“I want to look at perfection at the beginning of life and then look at the quest for perfection at the end of life,” Mitchell said in his lecture, titled “Perfecting Ourselves to Death: Technology, Humanity and the Quest for Perfection.”

Mitchell said medical technology that can aid parents in enhancing their children before birth is “raising some interesting questions.”

For example, two parents who are mentally disabled might be asked to choose whether or not they want their child to receive germ-line genetic enhancement to raise the child’s IQ, Mitchell said. He also mentioned technology that can increase the likelihood of having a certain gender and even genetic enhancement to give the child perfect pitch.

“Many (new) kinds of technologies are right on the threshold,” Mitchell said.

Beliefs in procreative liberty, parental control over children and a child’s right to the most possible advantages and opportunities are the driving arguments for the use of early life biotechnology, Mitchell said.

He said he sees ethical issues with enhancement. Communicating some ideas author Michael J. Sandel argued in his book, “The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering,” Mitchell said children are received, not chosen. In addition, genetic enhancement creates a commodity perception of children by associating costs with achievements and produces unintended consequences.

“The worry is that through manipulating the germ line there might be unintended consequences … that we couldn’t clean up without violating human rights,” Mitchell said.

Moving to the opposite end of the life-spectrum, Mitchell addressed the idea of “transhumanism,” which the World Transhumanist Association described on its website as the study of the ramifications of technology to overcome fundamental human limitations.

“(Transhumanists) want a society that uses technology to live longer, happier and smarter, with more control over their lives,” Mitchell said.

The idea of extending lifespan, even to the point where people could live indefinitely, was recently addressed in Time magazine’s Feb. 21 cover story, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”

The article featured Ray Kurzweil, who said he believes that “by 2045, human capacity, brain capacity, and speed will be matched by machine capacity,” Mitchell said.

The technology and culture discussion continued on Feb. 24. Gene Rohrbaugh, associate professor of computer science at Messiah College, lectured on “Augustine, Aquinas and Asimov: a Christian View on the Creation of Artificial Moral Agents.” A tornado warning cut Rohrbaugh’s lecture short.

Two more 6 p.m. lectures will address other aspects of the discussion. Barnard invited the Jackson community to join students attending the lectures for class credit.

Arthur W. Hunt III, associate professor of communications at the University of Tennessee at Martin, will give a lecture titled “Back to the Shire: From English Village to Global Village, and Back Again,” March 3 in the Carl Grant Events Center.

Barnard will close out the series March 10 in the events center, lecturing on “Unnatural Selection: Technological Evolution by Consumer Desire.”

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