This week I sat in the front row of a class and started chatting with the student next to me. We got along pretty well and engaged in a bit of small talk before and during the class. Toward the end we got to talking about some bioethics issues, and he said, "you can't control life and death." At first I thought, "why bother," and considered not saying anything that might risk the amiability of a new acquaintance. Then my second thought (which I went with): "of course you can. I could kill you, which clearly shows I can control death." I might also have pointed out a number of germane examples, including that in the case of human life, we routinely control the creation of that life by having sex. The question of ability (can or can't) is thereby quickly and clearly resolved. What he probably meant to say was that one doesn't have the right, or perhaps shouldn't, control life or death- but that is a separate question. Clearly, we can and do routinely control life and death, not only of plants (when's the last time you ate ground up wheat babies for breakfast?) and animals and bacteria (you hand-washing murderer!) but also of people.
If, indeed, he intended to make a statement as to classes of activity that humans should not experiment with, he might have drawn on a phrase that you and I have likely heard numerous times: that it is morally wrong for parents, doctors, and scientists to "play God." (my friend, joking that Mormons believe in apotheosis/exaltation [the idea that man can become like God is], said, "Why not? We have to practice, don't we?) Condemning an act because one classifies it as "playing God" is, to say the least, a problematic claim.
First, one must distinguish between two classes of activity: behavior which does not usurp God's role and that which is, in fact, playing God. How does one distinguish these two classes? Add up the yes's and no's you would answer to these questions.
Which of the following is playing God?
Executing a death row inmate.
Killing a chicken.
Giving an injured soldier a blood transfusion.
Administering an influenza vaccine.
Having sex where pregnancy might result.
Providing in vitro fertilization.
Withdrawing life support.
Giving your child glasses while believing God sent her into the world with poor eyesight.
Using PGD (fertilize a bunch of embryos, then only implant one that doesn't have genetic defects such as cystic fibrosis and Down's syndrome http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genetic_disorders).
Refusing to administer CPR to an elderly patient who is very close to death and who has expressed the preference to not be revived the next time his heart fails.
Refusing to administer CPR to an elderly patient who is very close to death and who has expressed no preference about being revived the next time his heart fails.
Administering CPR to an elderly patient who is very close to death and who has expressed the preference to not be revived the next time his heart fails.
Choosing not to feed a child.
Choosing the gender of your child (through PGD- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preimplantation_genetic_diagnosis).
Allocating limited therapeutic resources at a clinic for the severely disabled.
Deciding to grant a health insurance claim for a possibly life-saving 13 million dollar treatment.
Deciding to refuse a health insurance claim for a possibly life-saving 13 million dollar treatment.
Transplanting a kidney.
Infanticide 2 hours after birth.
Infanticide 2 hours before birth.
Feticide at 30 weeks.
Feticide at 10 weeks.
Embrycide at 1 day.
Embrycide at 1 minute.
Oocyte destruction 1 minute before fertilization.
Using a spermicide.
Using a condom.
Making a DNA strand in the lab.
Now remember, the question isn't which of the above acts is right or wrong; the question is which acts usurp God's role and which ones don't. How many yes's and how many no's did you come up with? As this exercise illustrates, discerning between what is and isn't playing God is a very difficult business. It seems that in order to answer the is/is not playing God question, one must first decide whether the act is right or wrong. If that is the case, then the concept of "playing God" is of no help at all in deciding what to do, since you had to decide what is right first in order to categorize the act second.
Second. Even if one does provide a usable principle for discerning playing God and not playing God, unless one class is categorically morally right and one morally wrong, one still has to discern whether an act that falls into one or the other category is right or wrong. Once again, the "playing God" concept fails to provide any usefulness in determining right and wrong.
[I could also successfully make this argument by inserting "it's natural" into the place of "playing God." E.g. some say homosexuality is wrong because it isn't natural. What is and isn't natural? If 5% of people are homosexual, is it natural? How about 15%? 55%? What if homosexuality is observed in non-human species (which it abundantly is, especially among sea mammals and primates- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_displaying_homosexual_behavior or a relevant video)? Is it "natural" to administer antibiotics? If antibiotic administration is unnatural, is it therefore wrong? How about a kidney transplant? How about helping couples to conceive using in-vitro fertilization? Once again, these behaviors may or may not be wrong, but discerning their natural/non-natural category won't advance the ball in determining their rightness/wrongness. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalistic_fallacy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_nature, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is-ought_problem]
Okay, so I've now shot down "playing God" and "it isn't natural" as justifications for judging the morality of an act. I will now posit five scenarios and ask if they're right or wrong, and upon what foundation that judgment rests. After, I will explain why using a "slippery slope" argument is a slippery slope. :)
1) Manufacturing DNA strands, the blueprint of life, in the lab from the building blocks A, T, G, and C. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/
2) Synthesizing viruses in the lab. (related wowza- http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1706552,00.html)
3) Synthesizing reproductively capable cells from scratch in the lab. (ribosomes, one more step toward this end - http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090309104434.htm)
4) Taking drugs to get taller
["Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?" Matt. 6: 27
Well, besides the simple answer that there are growth hormone therapists that do exactly that for short children (see e.g. page 182 of ON MEDICINE, CULTURE, AND CHILDREN’S BASIC INTERESTS: A REPLY TO THREE CRITICS by Richard B. Miller), this verse appears to run into the same problem as the "God of the Gaps" post of last week- the elevated status of God depends on the fallible foundation of information asymmetry: i.e. God has an incentive to hide truth from you in order to maintain your faith in Him. This, as I claimed earlier, is a mistaken form of faith. God is not threatened by the advance of science or our increased understanding of truth- in fact, He is both the source and committed to our receipt, of light, truth, and intelligence.]
5) Choosing your child's gender ("Would you choose your child's gender?" http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/12/08/video.wall.gender.baby/index.html)
Now for the slippery slopes. (remember- a world without friction would be... dangerous http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2sLP1OmIQ8&feature=related 2:00-2:25). The case I'll use to illustrate is euthanasia. Many people support the limited category of mercy killings by passive voluntary euthanasia (euthanasia basics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthanasia). However, opponents argue that once you accept one form of euthanasia, because other forms will differ, albeit progressively, in only miniscule increments (i.e. picture a euthanasia machine where there's only a 50% chance of death, or where both the doctor and patient must act for it to function instead of one or the other, etc.), it is better to oppose all forms of euthanasia. This is the slippery slope argument, and you see it in many other contexts as well (e.g. the fourth amendment right of privacy - is it okay for the government to look over the neighbor's fence? What if it's a short fence? Is it okay to fly over his house at 10,000 feet? How about 100? What if you look down with binoculars? How about a sensitive heat-sensing device? What about planting video cameras in their bedroom? What about pretending to be a salesman to get inside to observe? When has the right to privacy been violated? more on this later). Back to our euthanasia case. An ethicist might argue that passive voluntary euthanasia should be banned not because it is wrong, but because there is no barrier along the slippery slope, and to embrace one form of euthanasia is to necessarily accept them all. Because some types are morally wrong, one must therefore ban all types.
There are two main counters to the slippery slope: the "spectrum" approach and the "bright-line rule" method. The spectrum approach says that a behavior's morality isn't binary (right or wrong); rather, an act falls somewhere on a spectrum from right to wrong. To illustrate, let's take an example using the related concept of justice. Josh, unprovoked, punches Kyle in the face with 10 N of force.
1) Kyle does nothing in return.
2) Kyle punches him back with 5 N.
3) Kyle punches him back with 10 N.
4) Kyle punches him back with 15 N.
5) Kyle slays Josh.
First, take the standard binary approach. 1, 2, 4, and 5 are "unjust." Only 3 is just. "Just" and "unjust" are your only two categories.
The spectrum approach, however, shows that 5 is less just than 4, and that 2 is more just that 1. Thus, justice is a matter of degree. The spectrum approach claims that morality is a matter of degree. This means that the slippery slope isn't all that slippery because the small increments make a small moral difference (there's your friction, Bill Nye!). Thus, X) barely less voluntary euthanasia is more wrong (or less right, take your pick depending on where you would draw the binary line) than the Y) more voluntary form that preceded it, even if X and Y are both in the "wrong" category under a binary paradigm.
That's the spectrum approach. The "bright line" method is often used in the law and in parenting, and consists of clearly defining what is right and wrong even though the line's placement on the slippery slope is arbitrary. Using the example of the fourth amendment right to privacy, a court might say that it's fine to fly over someone's house and look down, but if you use any kind of vision enhancement beyond the power of contacts and eyeglasses that are standard at the time the court made the decision, then you've breached the right of privacy. They might also proscribe the use of any deception or devices inside the physical boundaries of the property, but permit the government to walk to the border of the property, etc. until it is exceptionally clear what does and does not violate a privacy interest. Now, of course, these clear limits are just made up to provide a clear rule so the government doesn't have to guess when they've violated the privacy interest of the ringleader of a suspected child pornography operation when trying to garner evidence against him. There's no special reason for drawing the line at vision enhancing binoculars; you might just as easily have said "don't look down" or "don't use any binoculars more powerful than 10x." The point is that the "precise drawing of the line is arbitrary; but it is not arbitrary that a line is drawn" (see credits). It makes sense to draw precise lines even though the underlying morality changes more gradually.
To act in ignorance of the two counters of "spectrum" and "bright line" is to head down a slippery slope. :)
Credits: "A tool-box for reasoning," Tony Hope, Medical Ethics: a very short introduction