Why We need Christian Ethics

In this blog post, Dr. Todd Daly talks about Christian Ethics, what they are, and why they matter:  

Last week a team of scientists in Portland, Oregon announced that they had successfully edited a genetic mutation which causes heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heritable disease that afflicts many unsuspecting adults. The appeal of embryonic genetic manipulation is strong, given the relative simplicity of genetic manipulation at this nascent stage of life, together with the promise that any such ‘corrections’ would be passed on to future generations. That is, if such embryos were allowed to develop (they were not), they would not only be disease-free, but would not pass along this disease to their descendants.

Thanks to the recent development of a fairly simply technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is basically pair of “molecular scissors,” scientists now have the power to alter individual base pairs of human DNA, and re-write the human genome and the biological basis for humanity itself. The appeal is enormous, given that there are over 10,000 known disorders that are caused by a single gene mutation. Though some fear that this is the first step to creating “designer babies,” one of the lead researchers and author of this recently published breakthrough insisted that their work was justified, given that they merely “corrected” mutant genes rather than changing them.

While nearly all scientists recognize the significance of this breakthrough for the future of medicine and the welfare of humanity, the ethical concerns of this technology have been repeatedly down-played, or reduced to concerns over mere safety. “We’ve always said in the past gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely,” noted Richard Hynes, cancer researcher at MIT who lead a committee. “That’s still true,” he says, “but now it looks like it’s going to be done safely soon.” As technology marches forward, we may begin to wonder why we wouldn’t use genetic manipulation to eliminate horrific, heritable diseases like Huntington’s, Tay-Sacs, cystic fibrosis, and even some forms of early-onset Alzheimer’s. After all, if Jesus healed the blind and made the lame walk, actions which served as a sign of God’s coming reign, why shouldn’t these technologies be enlisted in service of God’s Kingdom?

This last question takes us into the field of Christian ethics, which transcends the dominant ethical concerns—valid as they may be—over procedural safety. Indeed, we might ask whether ethics can be so readily reduced to safety concerns. (How safe were the embryos destroyed in the name of medical progress, who represent the most vulnerable members of society?). Christian ethics asks questions like, “What are humans for?” “What does it mean to be created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27)?” “How do we bring Scripture to bear on contemporary moral problems like germ line genetic engineering?” “What purpose should medicine have in God’s Kingdom?” “Must all suffering be eliminated, or can it serve a redemptive role in our flourishing?” “What purposes, if any, does disease serve in God’s Kingdom?”

In short, Christian ethics considers any issue relating to our humanity from the perspective of God’s redemptive activity in Jesus Christ. In this respect, developing a Christian ethical perspective on medicine—or war, divorce, genetic engineering, the environment, or capitalism—may be more challenging than the perspectives offered by the dominant modes of ethical discourse in our culture—consequentialism and utilitarianism. Thus, formulating a Christian response to the promises and perils of genetic engineering through CRISPR technology will involve situating the goals of medicine within the wider story of redemption as told in the Bible, which will include both a biblical perspective on what it means to be a finite, fallen, and redeemed human beings, as well as an appreciation of what other ethical systems offer, and where they fall short. If you find such questions intriguing, then our course in Christian ethics this fall may be just the place for you–Check it out!