when faced with ethical ickiness

April 16th, 2008

And by ickiness I mean a question that you don't have the answer to, but you nevertheless have a gut feeling one way or the other. For instance: should gay couples be allowed to adopt? Another example would be: should it be permitted to clone humans? Or how about the old favorite: should sex play in kinder garden be encouraged (which I have absolutely no answer to)?

These are questions which have no prior answer, because we've only just been faced with them for the first time (or for that matter, only now been willing to consider them). There are many questions like this which have no answer (yet), but which nevertheless raise a certain instinctive feeling in us that makes us prone to lean to one side. This icky feeling is a fear within us that "something bad will happen" if this new thing is allowed to happen, without knowing what we really are scared of.

Many such questions have received answers in the past. For example the question of whether a brother and sister should be allowed to marry has been settled on the basis that children of such parents are born with serious deformities. Therefore we have a rational answer, not merely a fear.

What not to do: alternative A

Do not take your unarticulated fear to draw the conclusion that your instinct must be correct, and therefore suggest banning or condemning the practice. This is a purely emotional response with no rational justification.

Do not further aim to strengthen your argument by associating yourself with a large group of people who share your unarticulated fear and has decided to "do something about it". The ignorance of a thousand is no more equivalent to wisdom than the fact that the sun is the center of our solar system was discovered by popular opinion.

Those who would rather pretend that certain new possibilities were never discovered will desire to ban these, so that we can go back to believing these things are not possible. And if it is banned, no one will be doing it, so we can live in this illusion we've created for ourselves.

What to do: alternative B

Resign yourself to the fact that certain questions have no answer at the moment, and that at any given time there will always be such questions. Your pretty little head will resist this, because this makes certain things undecidable. But it is nevertheless the quickest path to happiness, as you will soon see.

What to do: alternative C

Pursue the answer intellectually, and aggressively. Read up on the science that is happening in this field and the discourse that is taking place between interested parties. Once you go in depth you will begin to understand not just the issue, but also your own fear and what it really is you're worried about. This will then prevent you from choosing the emotional answer of alternative A, because you will no longer be able to convince yourself that a rational answer is optional.

The final, undisputed answer to certain questions may not come for a long time, not even in the span of your lifetime. But with every step that you veer closer to the truth you will have a better idea of what it's likely to be. Until the truth is actually discovered, you will regularly find yourself faced with alternative B.

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