In a recent article titled “Extreme Science” (August, 2011), Wired magazine broaches a topic that few mainstream publications would be willing to touch. What could be accomplished if scientists were prepared to set aside the “moral compass” that guides them (assuming there is one)? Imagine the advances waiting to be made. As Wired observes, in the real world (as opposed to the sci-fi world), “Most scientists will assure you that ethical rules never hinder good research – that there’s always a virtuous path to testing any important hypothesis. But ask them in private… and they’ll confess that the dark side does have its appeal.” http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_swr/
For example, scientists could separate sets of twins at birth in order to control and monitor their individual environments right from the start. The gain from such an experiment is a possible solution to the nature vs. nurture dilemma. Think about a twin study in which both individuals are eventually identified as gay, regardless of their distinct upbringing. This could offer proof that homosexuality is all nature and not nurture. In another example, Wired considers the possibility of “womb swapping,” i.e., switching “the embryos of obese women with those of thin women.” Again, the experiment would determine whether environment or genetic factors determine an individual’s weight. Then there is an experiment right out of a science fiction movie, one that cross-breeds a human with a chimpanzee. Wired reports that the technique would be “frighteningly easy” and it would teach us much about human development.
But what actually prevents unethical research from happening? It could be argued that these experiments are blatant violations of individual autonomy. But the fact of the matter is that human autonomy is already disregarded with other procedures (e.g., human embryonic stem cell research, abortion, etc.). In other words, what is the essential moral difference between destroying an early embryo in lieu of subjecting it to controlled research? One may even maintain that the twins, separated at birth, are at least alive as opposed to embryos that are destroyed.
Then again, one could argue that the main difference is that twins will eventually come to understand their situation and realize that their autonomy has been violated. On the other hand, destroyed embryos will never know their fate. Fair enough. But if morality is governed by utilitarian concerns, as it already is, it would seem that the value gained by subjecting embryos to questionable research outweighs their future concern for autonomy. And if “awareness of one’s autonomy” is the key moral criterion, then research could be extended to any human lacking awareness (e.g., newborns, coma patients, etc.).
In short, humans have the rational capacity to consider all options to achieve an objective. Humans have also demonstrated a natural tendency to push the moral envelope, to give priority to what can be done over what should be done. Time will tell whether experiments which are now considered unethical will one day be the norm.