Technological Solutions to Moral Problems

By Matthew L Baum

When we consider our society’s tough moral questions, like whether it is acceptable to use embryonic stem cells for research and medicine, we often look towards governmental leaders, policy makers, lawyers, and ethicists to find solutions. But should we look more often towards engineers?

This week in Nature, a research group from the RIKEN institute in Kobe, Japan described a new and simpler way to induce cells from differentiated tissues to return to a pluripotent-stem-cell-like state. The method is not only scientifically interesting, but also a member of a class of what I have come to think of as Morally Modifying Technologies.

Morally Modifying Technologies represent an under-incentivized means through which scientists and engineers could help us disentangle our society’s most controversial moral issues and have three key components. The first is that they neither resolve a moral debate (in this case, the acceptability of embryonic stem cells for research and medicine) nor do they comment on the validity of the reasons on each side of an issue; the moral questions raised are equally problematic before and after the invention of the technology. The second is that, even though the issue itself is unaffected, the importance of our resolving it seems to matter less. That is, morally modifying technologies make a moral dilemma less practically problematic. The third is that the new technology often does not perform the desired function empirically better than existing technology (it might even be worse), but does so in a morally less problematic way – that is, if it were not for the moral advantage, the technology might be thought of as redundant.

The easy access to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) settles nothing in the ethical debate about embryonic stem cells. Neither are iPSCs more versatile than embryonic stem cells. Because iPSCs might enable similar research and therapeutic goals, moreover, the ready availability of the technology suddenly decreases the importance of the debate on the acceptability of embryonic stem cells.

Two other examples of morally modifying technologies are blood recirculators and timed ventilators. Machines that recirculate lost blood, though offering little advantage over a blood transfusion, diminish the importance of the debate about the acceptability of giving  life-saving blood products to critically ill unconscious patients – or children – who for religious or other reasons might refuse the blood transfusion for themselves or their child; blood recirculators provide an alternative to the use of blood products in these cases. Timed ventilators, though offering little advantage over untimed ventilators, build in windows to withhold rather than withdraw treatment (because they need to be reset every so often); this settles nothing about the validity of positions that permit withholding but prohibit withdrawing treatment, but they make the debate less practically important.

The NIH often creates research initiatives and challenge grants aimed to focus scientific and engineering energy on certain goals. Perhaps it is time for one of these goals specifically to be the development of morally modifying technologies.



During his fellowship, Matthew Baum was a second year MD-PhD student in the Health Science and Technology (HST) combined program of Harvard and MIT where he integrated his interests in clinical, scientific, and ethical aspects of mental health. He holds a DPhil at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics where his doctoral work, supported by a Rhodes Scholarship, concerned the ethical implications of the development of predictive biomarkers of brain disorders. Matthew also completed an MSc in Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin as a George Mitchell Scholar and holds a BS and an MS in Molecular Biology from Yale. During his medical and neuroscience training he maintained a strong engagement with neuroethics; he has acted as the student representative to the International Society for Neuroethics. During his time at the Petrie-Flom Center, Matt researched the intersection of biological risk and disorder.

2 thoughts to “Technological Solutions to Moral Problems”

  1. Thank you for your post; I respectfully disagree. I do not think that the Morally Modifying Techniques theory accounts for negative externalities. Scientists have been banned from asking certain questions (e.g. SCNT research with federal funds) and this threatens scientific exploration. The idea that scientists are “incentivized” to find alternative routes that do not offend some people’s morals creates roadblocks to scientific inquiry. An obvious externality, for example, is pushing scientists away from an area of research, such as embryonic stem cell research, because future funding is uncertain. Research in iPSCs does not assuage that externality because, for example, one cannot know if an iPSC is similar, better or worse than embryonic stem cells until the comparison experiments are conducted. A more widespread externality is that non-scientists are controlling scientific inquiry – an historical example is the discovery that the earth is not flat – that faced much political opposition.

    Let me provide an example in a different context. Let’s say that some people are morally opposed to artwork of naked men and women. So, an artist who expresses herself through painting naked figures devises a way to create a hologram that makes the figure look clothed. And, only by wearing special glasses can people see the naked figure (i.e. the hologram is removed). Is this a good compromise? Now, people who are morally offended by naked figures do not have to see them in museums if they do not want to – the art has been morally modified by a technique. Or, is this censorship?

    I appreciate your post; it continues an important discussion about approaches to scientific inquiry and integrity.

    1. thank you for you comment, Joanna, which has challenged me to consider the limits of morally modifying technologies in further depth – both externalities and potential ways to manage them. I have expanded on the issue in a subsequent blog post (link below) and would be grateful for your insightful comments there. Of course, this is still a preliminary discussion, but hopefully will serve doorway to the development of a rich discussion.

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