As a society, I often feel that we have developed neat, simplistic heuristics to classify people as either “good or “bad” based on their yes/no answers to a series of questions: “Do you believe in A?” “Do you support B?” “Will you vote for C?”
However, the field of ethics can offer a stable refuge in this sea of oversimplification. It gives us tools to connect with one another and to consider difficult questions deeply, together. I recently experienced this myself at the annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, this year held virtually.
Ethics recognizes that there are many different values to respect and protect in any one person’s life and that it’s possible for these values to be in conflict with one another. The situation only becomes more complicated when we choose to consider many people at once.
For example, there is a new technology that allows law enforcement to narrow a list of suspects by uploading a single nucleotide polymorphism profile from a DNA sample collected at a crime scene to genetic genealogy sites such as GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA. This is designed to compare the DNA profiles of its customers and help them identify genetic relatives.
When this technology was applied to a case that had gone unsolved for 40 years, it took two months to identify the serial rapist and murderer known as the Golden State Killer.
When I tell the story this way, it sounds wonderful – isn’t catching serial killers always a good thing? What, though, about the rights of the millions of people who submitted their DNA profile to one of these sites simply to identify distant relatives to fill in their family tree?
For many, catching serial killers wasn’t part of the bargain. Do these searches by law enforcement violate customers’ privacy? Many genetic genealogy sites have responded to this new technology by either refusing access to law enforcement or by allowing customers to opt in or opt out of law enforcement searches. However, tension remains between public safety, on one hand, and innocent citizens’ privacy, on the other.
This was one of the topics discussed at the recent ASBH conference. It nicely illustrates my earlier point that, in most situations worth thinking about, there are many different values to be considered, often in direct conflict with one another. The question “Should law enforcement be allowed to continue using this new technology?” requires us to consider public safety, personal privacy, and the state’s responsibility to protect both.
The very act of recognizing these entangled values allows us to view those with whom we disagree, not as bad people, but as peers with a different understanding of how competing values ought to be weighed. My initial opinion, after listening to the lecture on the new technology that I discussed above, was that the benefits to public safety outweigh the risks to individual privacy; however, I appreciate the importance of respecting privacy, and this allows me to sympathize with those who reached a different conclusion from mine.
And this is critical, because it is much more difficult to hate someone after recognizing that they do genuinely care than it is to hate a person who is selfish, bigoted or weak. Yet, nowadays, it seems that we are all too quick to view those who disagree with us as bad people, and this does nobody – not ‘us’ and not ‘them,’ (whoever ‘us’ and ‘them’ are) – any good.
Ethics may seem abstract (and perhaps it sometimes is – after all, I’m still new to this field), but I have already seen that it has much to offer us as a society. It can give us language for the values that we so ardently care about: individual autonomy, protection for the vulnerable, respect for religious or spiritual expression. And, furthermore, it can teach us to understand those who disagree with us not as enemies to be dominated, but as fellow travelers seeking the road to human flourishing.