Mind the anticipatory gap: factoring future moral change into the governance of human genome editing

By John Danaher.

Human genome editing is a potentially transformative emerging technology. Current clinical trials of CRISPR, for example, suggest it can be used as a therapeutic to treat a wide range of hereditary and acquired diseases. More speculatively, it could also be used as an enhancer, improving the capacities of generally normal or healthy individuals.

Transformative emerging technologies pose a governance challenge. Back in 1980, a little-known academic at the University of Aston in the UK, called David Collingridge, identified the dilemma that has come to define this challenge: the control dilemma (also known as the ‘Collingridge Dilemma’). The dilemma states that, for any emerging technology, we face a trade-off between our knowledge of its impact and our ability to control it. Early on, we know little about it, but it is relatively easy to control. Later, as we learn more, it becomes harder to control. This is because technologies tend to diffuse throughout society and become embedded in social processes and institutions. Think about our recent history with smartphones. When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone back in 2007, we didn’t know just how pervasive and all-consuming this device would become. Now we do but it is hard to put the genie back in the bottle (as some would like to do).

The field of anticipatory governance tries to address the control dilemma. It aims to carefully manage the rollout of an emerging technology so as to avoid the problem of losing control just as we learn more about the effects of the technology. Anticipatory governance has become popular in the world of responsible innovation and design. In the field of bioethics, approaches to anticipatory governance often try to anticipate future technical realities, ethical concerns, and incorporate differing public opinion about a technology.

But there is a ‘gap’ in current approaches to anticipatory governance. They fail to factor in the mismatch between present and future moral views about a technology. We know, from our own social histories, that moral beliefs and practices can change over time. Things our grandparents thought were morally unexceptionable have become quite exceptionable. It is possible that future generations will have very different attitudes to genome editing than we do today. That’s something we need to consider when governing its rollout.

Why should we take the anticipatory gap seriously? There are four main reasons.

First, there is the aforementioned history of moral change, some of which has been affected by technology. For example, moral attitudes toward sex and reproduction, in many countries, have changed dramatically since the early 1900s. Some of this change appears to have been influenced by changes to reproductive technology, including, in particular, the widespread availability of effective contraceptives. Some such changes may simply be changes in opinion and preference, but some represent genuine changes in what people think is right or wrong, good or bad. Indeed, we often reflect on the past with a degree of moral queasiness: how could we once have thought and believed that? This attitude towards our own past can be projected into the future. This gives us reason to at least second-guess our current moral convictions.

Second, and closely allied to this, there is the problem of status quo bias. This is a widely documented psychological heuristic employed by humans, which can have an impact on applied ethical debates. It could very well be that, in our current governance practices, we are trapped and limited by our current moral paradigms – prisoners of our own moral complacency. If we care about future generations, we need to escape this prison.

Third, we know that many technologies go through a process of normalisation. What once seemed odd or disruptive, becomes normal and routine. This process of normalisation can affect moral beliefs and attitudes. Consider, for example, the history of assisted human reproduction. The practice of IVF was once disruptive and ethically contentious. It is now normal and widely tolerated. This process of normalisation could significantly impact the future ethics of genome editing.

Fourth, and finally, we must remember that current public moral attitudes and beliefs are not monolithic. They are diverse and plural. Some people embrace the potentiality of human genome editing; others are vehemently opposed. There are various shades of opinion in between. This present-day diversity can affect future trajectories of moral belief. It is possible that some people and some groups – moral influencers and trendsetters – can have an outsized impact on the trajectory we take. This leads to the possibility of value lock-in: [1] if we don’t address it now, we might get prematurely stuck in a new moral paradigm.

What implications does this have for the anticipatory governance of human genome editing? It does not mandate radical ethical relativism about the future. Just because some moral beliefs change does not mean that all do or should. Some remain stable and foundational. Nevertheless, a present-day stance of moral agnosticism about human genome editing may be the best place to start. From there we should proceed with the exercise of anticipatory governance in an iterative way, periodically updating our regulatory stance and remaining epistemic humble about its moral status. We should build societal response capacity to future moral change, incorporating ethical foresight exercises, enabling institutional responsiveness and flexibility, and avoiding the trap of technological determinism or, worse, fatalism. Finally, we should pay attention to shifting moral evaluations of the technology and try, in particular, to include the voices and perspectives of those most likely to be adversely impacted by the future moral development of genome editing.

This is how we can fill the anticipatory gap.

[1] The term ‘value-lock in’ is taken from Chapter 4 of MacAskill, W. What We Owe the Future (London: Oneworld, 2022).

Paper: Anticipatory gaps challenge the public governance of heritable human genome editing

Authors: Jon Rueda, Seppe Segers,Jeroen Hopster, Karolina Kudlek, Belén Liedo, Samuela Marchiori, John Danaher

Competing interests: None declared

X:  @ruetxe, @HopsterJeroen, @BelenLiedo, @JohnDanaher


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