Morality and Technology 

Tibor R. Machan


One of the interesting aspects of the current debates about stem cell research and human cloning is that even much of the media buys into some alleged conflict between what is technologically useful and what is morally right.  In fact, the former may well be fully consistent with the latter. 

For example, to have created effective means by which to improve the likelihood of surviving heart disease, through heart transplants and artificial hearts, is not only technologically useful but morally praiseworthy.  To reduce the frequency and intensity of pain while obtaining dental treatment or chemotherapy, via technology and pharmacology, is again not only something technologically useful but also morally praiseworthy. 

  In fact, the whole point of much of technology is to make things better for people – to reduce poverty, suffering, misery, disease as well as to enhance life in innumerable ways.  What else would count as morally praiseworthy if this does not?

  But let us just look at the matter directly.  What makes something morally good or right? 

  This is vital since those who oppose, for example, stem cell research or human cloning claim that they are arguing from a moral position against technology and science.  The Reverend Jerry Falwell, for example, was urging President George W. Bush on August 9 to do the morally right thing and oppose stem cell research funding.  Others were just as vehement about demanding a ban on human cloning, claiming that theirs is the moral point of view.

  So to have a sense of who is talking sense and who is merely perpetrating a ruse, pretending to occupy the moral high ground, it is necessary to be straight about what it means to be morally right.  We all invoke morality and ethics in our arguments but do we give enough thought to what these really involve?

  To start with, in ordinary discussion “ethics” and “morality” refer to the same thing, principles that guide us in living properly, as a human being ought to live, decently, rightly.  “Ethics” is sometimes used to refer to a code, such as what is adopted in the legal or engineering professions, but that is derivative, not the basic meaning.  Also, some think “morality” means “mores” but, in fact, mores are customary ways of acting which may not be moral at all.

  But what then is moral or ethical in the basic sense of these?  This has been a subject of debate from time immemorial.  Most college graduate ran across the substance of these debates in philosophy courses.  We also get proposed moral principles from different religions and from certain prominent philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Marx and Mill. 

  So the first thing to be aware of is that the basic principles of ethics or morality are widely disputed, not at all self-evident and uncontroversial.  Thus at the least it should be clear that any claim that the moral or ethical opposes the technological and scientific is brazenly question begging, presumptuous. 

  Apart from the ongoing philosophical debate, we do have some clues lying about us as to what counts as basic in ethics or morality. Generally speaking, what is moral must be in support of human life.  That is why murdering people gets such severe rebuke in the law and in public opinion.

 Most of us, even without much reflection, realize that negligently or intentionally killing another human beings who hasn’t provoked this by some equally egregious act is terribly wrong. 

  From this it is pretty clear that morality or ethics have to do with supporting and not destroying human life.  Anyone who willingly acts to support such life is doing something morally or ethically right, and those who willingly act to destroy it are doing something morally or ethically wrong.

  The rest, although often extremely complicated and involved, is generally clear enough: acts that help advance human living are right to the extent they do this and acts which help destroy human life are wrong to the extent they do so. 

  Translating this into practical, day to day moral or ethical judgments can be very difficult and all of us are saddled with the responsibility to do so.  But at the end of the day what is ethical or moral is most probably going to be what is supportive of human life and what is unethical or immoral is what is destructive of human life.

  When we then look at the current public disputes, we have to ask whether banning stem cell research or cloning does more to support or to oppose human life.  Answering this doesn’t solve all aspects of the debate but it does at least set us on the proper course to reach some sensible ethical or moral position.  And it makes clear that both sides have a plausible moral position and it is deceptive to appropriate that for one side alone.


Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover Institution research fellow and Distinguished Fellow and professor in the Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship & Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business and Economics, Chapman University, in Orange, California. He is also Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.