Stephen Kent

It is not difficult to imagine a time, centuries — even millennia — ago, when humans gathered outside a cave to discuss the ramifications of their newest weapon.

They admired its efficiency. A string could be tied between the ends of a supple branch to form a bow which, when pulled back and released, would propel a sharp-tipped arrow. Killing at a distance had arrived. It brought new concerns, of course. Was it right to use this distance rather than bashing the opponent with the traditional club?

There was plenty of time to think of this as the elders of the tribe pondered the ethical questions involved.

It was much the same scene some centuries later when the discovery of an explosive powder that propelled a hunk of metal distances farther than an arrow would have, opening the way to killing at a greater distance. There was time for the ethics to be considered and applied.

And so it continued, down through the ages: nuclear weapons delivered by aircraft, and later capable of delivery by intercontinental missiles, chemical and biological warfare, drone aircraft. Each produced its own questions and concerns, but there seemed to be time for society to filter it through ethical norms.

Now technology is moving at a much faster rate than our ability to keep up with it ethically.

These days, science is creating personalized bioweapons. The genetic code can be translated into the ones and zeroes of binary code, allowing for the easy manipulation of genetic information, according to an extensive article in The Atlantic magazine.

“With this development, biology has turned a corner, morphing into an information-based science and advancing exponentially,” author Marc Goodman writes in the article.

Goodman uses information technology as an example of what is meant by exponential growth. The most powerful supercomputer in the world in 1970 required a small room and cost $8 million. Today’s pocket-sized iPhone is 100 times faster and 12,000 times cheaper than the 1970s machine.

Exponential growth provides less and less time to ponder, reflect, to agree upon ethics. Medicine and pharmaceuticals are now producing targeted technology to attack specific cancer mutation. That is lifesaving. But it also has the ability to take DNA from anyone and modify it to produce disease or even personality change.

Scientists are only a few years away from using genetic modification to develop attacks by disease or to affect a person’s personality or behavior. This is not the mad scientist of movies working alone in a laboratory. It is mainline.

What are the questions? It can be done … should it be done? Who thinks about these things? Who counsels the button-pushers?

These are not issues that can remain confined to think tanks and seminars when the need is for pro-active ethics to deal with these issues.

Ethics are based on values. Values arise from foundational beliefs, the primary ones being the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of life as God’s creation. What advances this ideal is good, what hinders it is wrong.

A common criticism of military strategy and tactics is that the generals are always fighting the last war. Science and technology are moving faster than our ability to set rules to control developments.

The need to openly address the new ethics is immediate so that exponential growth does not run away before there is time to assess and control it.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at