Throughout my career in higher education, teaching ethics had a strong academic feel. It is a fascinating discipline with one of the richest literary traditions of any area of study. It did not, however, carry the sense of urgency that other subjects seemed to hold. It was more important in an eternal sense than in the sense of solving contemporary issues like identifying potential responses to financial crises or crafting political solutions to current conflicts. Even in my particular field of business ethics, I saw my role as one of building a generation of better-equipped business leaders rather than addressing the resultant evils of Enron, WorldCom, and other famous examples of ethical failure.
That is no longer true. The place of ethics and ethicists in the world has changed. The rapidly advancing state of technology has created a sense of urgency in our work. Some technological developments have so outstripped our understanding of the ethical issues those same technologies precipitate that the technologists themselves have recognized the gap. Advancements in areas like human genome editing and artificial intelligence have entered a crossroads where they must either advance in the absence of ethical frameworks or else forestall developments that have tremendous potential to contribute to human flourishing. The lack of ethical understanding around these powerfully useful technologies is now a roadblock.
Consider human genome editing. In 2012, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier developed technology that would allow for the editing of the human genome through relatively inexpensive means. This technology, referred to as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), was heralded by genetic scientists as a means to treat, and possibly even avoid, genetic disorders that have historically plagued mankind. Disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease, Huntington’s Disease, and Tay-Sachs Disease could potentially be eliminated from the human gene pool by the application of this technology. Nonetheless, public health organizations, governments, and geneticists themselves have called for moratoria on further clinical development of CRISPR for human genome editing until the ethics of these applications can be vetted. For those suffering from genetic disorders, it is a sad example of Proverbs 13:12a, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
Relatedly, artificial intelligence reached a new threshold in 2022 when OpenAI released a prototype of ChatGPT. This technology, along with other large language model AI, have the ability to leverage human activity in a way previously only imagined. By sourcing information from across the World Wide Web and formatting it based on common language requests, ChatGPT can summarize a wealth of information and use it to prepare documents, render defensible opinions, and answer complex questions. It can transform projects from taking weeks to taking only hours and tasks from taking hours to only taking minutes.
As in the case of CRISPR technology, however, several stakeholders in the large language model artificial intelligence space have called for their development to stop, pending the resolution of the critical ethical issues they produce. In March 2023, the Future of Life Institute issued a letter calling for a six-month moratorium on the development of AI systems more powerful than the current OpenAI system based on ChatGPT-4.1 The letter was signed by over 1,000 people including experts in the field. In May of this year, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, called on the US Congress to provide a regulator for his own company’s product.2
The intentional delay in developing these technologies until ethically-informed policy can be crafted to manage their application is the rational approach. The issues are complicated and the risks that can be posed by these technologies are severe. Utilizing CRISPR on the human genome implicates numerous ethical issues, including how such technology can be equitably distributed, the possibility of irrevocably influencing the human gene pool and producing post-human subspecies, distinctions between genetic therapy and genetic enhancement, and many other critical questions.
At the end of the first International Summit on Human Genome Editing in 2015, the sponsors issued a statement recognizing that society has not yet reached a level of comfort on these issues and that further development must be postponed until a broad social consensus can be reached. In the AI context, large language models like ChatGPT-4 raise ethical issues of bias; intellectual ownership of information gathered by AI; the possibility of its approaching “personhood;” ethical uses of it in the academy, arts, and professions; and numerous other issues that are yet to be resolved. These questions need to be carefully considered and addressed to allow these advancing technologies to bring good to the world while minimizing any concomitant harm.
While this delay in the development of advanced technology is warranted, it is also costly for humanity. Every year, eight million children are born with birth defects. The prospect of correcting or avoiding those defects (without having to sacrifice the children) is on the horizon, but we cannot advance towards it because we have not yet determined how to do it well. Large language models of AI could bring paradigm-shifting efficiencies to medicine through performing patient triage, remote patient monitoring, and assisting practitioners with the heavy volume of required report writing and patient notes.3 A number of other industries could also experience productivity benefits, but knowledgeable voices are advising we stand still until we can determine the right ways to employ that leverage.
Christian academics who are cognizant of how to address these ethical issues bear the weight of this delay, but we can also shorten the postponement. We are the stewards of a rich tradition of ethical literature, and it is our role to harness those sources and apply them to further the common understanding of how we can live in a world that is both technologically advanced and good. As members of the academy, we typically cannot, and probably should not, be making policy in these areas, but our work is necessary to inform and advance those policies and to build the social consensus necessary to support them.
Christian traditions of ethical analysis have a lot to contribute to these discussions, and Christian scholars have a long history of assisting mankind in resolving critical ethical questions. The Just War Theology of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas continues to inform our understanding of how to conduct ethical violent conflict. Modern Christian academics like Alvin Plantinga have made significant contributions in the cultural understanding of the relationship between science and faith. How would Plantinga’s views on human evolution inform the human genome editing conversation and the risk of transhumanism? What would patristic moral theology offer to advance questions on applying artificial intelligence? These are powerful analytical tools that Christian academics can contribute to develop a common understanding of how to apply these advanced technologies in good, as well as effective, ways.
If we delay contributing to these questions, our secular colleagues will move forward without us. Many of them are highly qualified with brilliant minds, but all of their input will be necessarily rooted in a secular outlook. The wisdom of God is largely unavailable to them. For some, it is even an object of scorn. The absence of our voices, and those of the Christian traditions we represent, in the current debates, will weaken them and potentially lead to negative results.
This particular call on Christian academics is not extraordinary in its demands and not exclusive to ethicists. We should all conduct theologically-informed research, think Christianly and critically, write professionally in journals and blogs like this one, present our ideas at conferences, respond to government requests for white papers, and do the work that professors do. What is unique about our situation is the urgency and the importance of the issues we are called to address. Never have so many lives and livelihoods been at stake as they are today. What is unique about Christian ethics is the wealth of tools we have inherited, the spiritual perspective we possess as believers, and the Master we have to direct us. We can look to Divine guidance, both textual and prayerful, to “speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
This opportunity for Christians to influence the future through their work in certain medical and technological areas will not last. The economic imperative for these technologies to continue to advance will ultimately prove irresistible. In 2018, Dr. Jiankui He reported that he had already performed gene editing on human embryos in China that resulted in the birth of twin girls. There are already plans underway for Chat GPT 5 and other AI technologies that will increase its power and reliability. Restrictions in both areas may already be loosening. The International Society for Stem Cell research has reclassified human genome editing from “prohibited” research to “currently not permitted” research.4 Now is the time for Christian academics and Christian ethicists to apply themselves and all their skill to these and other looming questions. Our generation has been gifted with an opportunity to bring the wisdom of Scripture and of our forebearers to point us all towards a world that is both good and safer for us all.
- “Pause Giant AI Experiments: An Open Letter,” Future of Life Institute, March 22, 2023, https://futureoflife.org/open-letter/pause-giant-ai-experiments/.
- Jodie Cook, “What OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s Congress Testimony Means For Entrepreneurs: 5 Key Takeaways,” Forbes, May 17, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jodiecook/2023/05/17/what-openai-ceo-sam-altmans-congress-testimony-means-for-entrepreneurs-5-key-takeaways/?sh=17f1d47f2a97
- Bernard Marr, “Revolutionizing Healthcare: The Top 14 Uses Of ChatGPT In Medicine And Wellness, Forbes, March 2, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2023/03/02/revolutionizing-healthcare-the-top-14-uses-of-chatgpt-in-medicine-and-wellness/?sh=1f8885ea6e54
- Francoise Baylis, “Heritable Human Genome Editing is ‘currently not permitted’ but it is No Longer ‘prohibited’: So Says the ISSCR,” Journal of Medical Ethics 49, no. 5 (2023): 319–321.