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.