On Using Godwin’s Fake “Law” To Silence Ethical Debate

Godwin’s Law ought to be enshrined next to Newton’s Laws or Kepler’s Laws for all posterity. For the uninitiated, Godwin’s Law states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” The concept was devised by Mike Godwin in 1990 and officially codified into law in a Wired article in 1994. Since then, the evidence for this law has only gotten stronger.

Because of the unquestioned veracity of Godwin’s Law, it is perhaps inevitable that a journalist will, eventually, be compared to a Nazi.

via RealClearScience

Let us start with what ought to be obvious: Godwin’s “law” is not a law. It is an Internet joke that was funny the first few times you heard it, then started getting kind of annoying.

If someone is comparing you to a Nazi for frivolous reasons, don’t “call Godwin’s Law”, the way a five year old “calls” the front seat as he and his sister race for the car. Confront them! Trivializing the Holocaust is a serious thing, and you should make that case forcefully.

But this is not an obviously frivolous comparison. It might or might not be correct or “right” or “valid” or “legitimate”, but the author absolutely intends to make the case that the new “good” eugenics is not different in kind from the old “bad” attempts to control that which is currently viewed as beyond mankind’s control.

It’s a serious argument. It raises valid questions. Are we prioritizing the “purity” or “health” of the race is prioritized over the rights of individuals? Are we overreaching, using, exploiting, seeking to take more than we’re actually able to handle? Do we know what we’re doing? Are some of us going to benefit at the expense of others?

Are we compromising ethics in the same way that Nazi scientists did – and for similar reasons?

That argument deserves better than playground taunts about Godwin cooties.

A man voices opposition to reckless human experimentation on ethical grounds, and the science guy spews forth a stream of emotive invective laced with ad hominem attacks. Raise a question about the proper use of an applied science, and you don’t have a legitimate avenue of discussion. You are anti-science. But are you?

from Celebrate Life Magazine

Really, what this is about is whether a parent has the right to a “perfect” child – or whether society has reason to demand that action be taken against the birth of imperfect children before birth – even if that means stealing something of value from the child in order to “give” something of value to the parents, or to the larger society – or to the scientists who have the most to gain (while of course they aren’t the ones taking any of the risks).

The stakeholders differ – parents, not “The State”, are viewed as the ones who can and should decide when it’s justifiable to experiment on one’s own descendents. But this distinction is not significant from a logical point of view. It is only significant – very significant – from an emotional point of view, because we idealize parents and we don’t like to think about even the possibility of a conflict of interest between what a parent wants and what a child might want or need or have reason to value.

And the language is changed; we use language that suggests the child is the beneficiary. This is how our culture handles the taboo regarding the conflict of interest between parent and child that isn’t supposed to exist.

The only way to honestly balance the rights of all stakeholders is to do just that: balance the rights of all stakeholders. After taking out the exaggerated promises of success, and the equally exaggerated tendency to minimize (or outright deny) risk, what would a child in such a situation want?

I was an IVF baby. Given this intimate connection with technology and test tubes, you might think I’d be a cheerleader for all developments in the field. But a new technique under consideration has broad and troubling implications, not only for hopeful parents-to-be and their potential future children, but for all of humanity.

This new technique, called mitochondrial replacement or “three-parent IVF,” would make genetic changes to IVF embryos and thus to every cell of the children born as a result of it. And these changes would be passed down to future generations. Human inheritable genetic modification of this kind is currently prohibited in over 40 countries and by several international agreements due to numerous problems and concerns. But proposals that would break this long-respected international consensus are now under consideration in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The goal of the new technique is, in one sense, the same as with all IVF procedures: to allow parents to have an (at least partially) genetically related child. But mitochondrial replacement requires genes from three people, and a biologically radical process to combine them. It is being proposed for a small number of women who suffer from a particular kind of severe mitochondrial disease (many kinds are actually caused by nuclear DNA, which this procedure would do nothing to help.) The idea is that replacing the unhealthy mitochondria in an affected woman’s egg with the healthy mitochondria of a donor’s egg could produce a disease-free child (that could have Dad’s eyes and Mom’s bone structure).

It’s an enticing story, and some insist that the technique should be made available as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for the families whose hopes have been raised, the feel-good story of a “life-saving treatment” covers up critical safety and efficacy problems, and hugely important social and ethical considerations.

On the safety front, there are a number of concerns for the women involved….

…There are also profoundly worrying safety and efficacy concerns for any resulting children, which a growing number of scientists are speaking up about.

This ethical dilemma would only be compounded by the fact that an effective, less invasive option already exists.

via Huffington Post (emphasis mine)

It cannot be argued that it is self-evident that any child would want to be experimented on in such a way.

And there is the conflict. Do we value some concept of scientific knowledge and/or genetic purity as a good in its own right, engineering perfect humans as an inherent good, or do we value the rights of people – all of whom are currently born imperfect, as measured against the current and future ideals of those who would “improve” us all?

Here is the quotation that caused all the trouble:

The empirical sciences don’t speak to principles of right and wrong. Those must be supplied by the human practitioners of science, or short of that, people of conscience with the moral clarity and will to hold them accountable. The conflict between Smith and Berezow, then, was not a case of anti-science versus science, but of science informed by conscience and directed for human good versus science barreling on, ignorant of good and evil. That kind of science was to novelist Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; to Lewis, The Abolition of Man; and to Jews in Nazi Germany, the death camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

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