How can we make the “brave new world” a campaign issue?

Wesley Smith, who, based on his writing, I consider a kindred soul in bioethics, has published an essay in First Things dated August 5, 2016, and entitled, “Brave New World Should be an Election Issue.”  In it, he quickly runs down the revolutionary changes in the very nature of humanity that appear in the offing based on biotechnological developments since the publication of Aldous Huxley’s novel.   Noting that Huxley initially thought the “horrors” described in Brave New World would take 600 years to materialize, only to revise that estimate to a century or less, Smith concludes, “It doesn’t have to be that way. We need not helplessly, passively, watch biotechnology’s power and influence surge. We can shape biotechnological advances to achieve moral ends. But that will require far more consideration of these issues than we have yet given them.”

Hear, hear.  But how to get people to listen?

Now, when it comes to politics, I’m an opinionated blowhard but no pundit.  (I know, I know, a distinction without a difference?)  Yet from what I read and see it looks like people vote based on their near-term concerns, not longer-term issues or matters that appear more abstract or are hard to understand (these days, > 140 characters).  Hence, the economy, jobs, trade, immigration, terrorism, how we view and empower and deal with the police, and the like are what come to the forefront in political campaigns.  These issues make for more striking video and/or louder shouting matches on TV, and most folks feel close enough to them to form opinions.

Less so with the technically complex issues of the new biotechnology, which we almost by necessity leave to “experts,” expecting that “they” (or maybe I should use Thomas Pynchon’s “They”) will steer these to places that we will find convenient and congenial.  And often times, that boils down to “what will they think of next?” rather than, “do we really think this should be done at all?”

And so, the challenges are to get people’s attention, communicate complex matters in ways they understand, and convince them not to support questionable actions even if they make life more comfortable.  And so, how to get people to understand what’s potentially at stake with human gene editing?  How to get them to stop what they are doing long enough to try to think through how much we should use genetic diagnosis to control the phenotypes of our offspring?  And how to get them to at least question something that could be awfully convenient and career-friendly, like artificial gestation, admittedly still rather further off than the other two examples here—or, than, IVF and gestational surrogacy?

Essays, blogs, the occasional Congressional testimony, and 2-minute spots on cable news may be necessary but hardly seem sufficient.  Expert conferences, open to the public though they may be, are practically limited to the experts who live the issues being discussed, and who have the time, energy, and experience to be able to address the concerns, give them priority, and then, in turn, be listened to coming out of the conference. 

(It’s as if we need a “Reformation-style,” if you will, public availability of the “Bible of science,” with common folk encouraged and empowered to read it on their own and draw their own common-sense conclusions, rather than rely on a learned “clergy” for their hermeneutics.  But that surely is also fraught—common sense can surely go awry, and a certain amount of learning is needed to read at all.)

What to do?  Well, I suppose: focus on education, from a very young age, in normative anthropology—what it is to be human—and on normative views of the family and procreation; keep theology central, as much as the secular world resists that; take individual techniques and issues and try to demonstrate, in simple terms, where they not so much might lead but are likely to lead; create creative works—movies short and long, public service announcements, ad campaigns—trying to illustrate concerns (think about the campaign against texting while driving); talk matters up in normal conversation.

Social media?  You tell me.  I never touch the stuff.

That in turn requires, I think, a group of people with the persistence, wherewithal, and creativity to press the different cutting-edge bioethical concerns in new ways, on an ongoing basis.  It requires a different approach than the advocacy of the last 40 years that attempts to “influence policy,” in an age where the opportunities, much less the efficacy, of that kind of advocacy appear constricted.

I’m not exactly sure how one would do it, or who.  Pray God will raise up a new generation.

And suggestions are welcome.

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Steve Phillips
5 years ago

I thinks this connects with my post on Wednesday. It needs to start with the church and those who are leaders in our churches. As long as people in the church make their moral decisions based on underlying concepts that they have absorbed from the general culture rather than from biblical principles nothing will change. We need to help believers understand how to apply biblical principles to their moral decisions and recognize the difference between the underlying moral concepts that come from the Bible and those that come from the surrounding culture. The sound moral decisions they will make will then cause those believers to stand out from the rest of the culture, like Israel stood out from other nations in its best days, and truly be salt and light that will impact the culture. I think one way to help the church do this is by impacting future church leaders through Cristian higher education.

Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
5 years ago
Reply to  Steve Phillips

Jon, I wish I had a strong response to how to get people to listen.

Steve, I am concerned that even at your or any Christian college, it is becoming more difficult to filter out the surrounding culture.

In the final paragraph of “After Virtue”, Alasdair MacIntyre compares the decline of Rome with our current decline. In discussing the beginning of the Dark Ages, he noted that “a crucial turning in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium…If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point…This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite sometime.”

One wonders what caused the St. Benedicts of that time to give up being salt and light, and withdraw into the cloisters.

Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
5 years ago
Reply to  Mark McQuain

Ignore italics – it was late