The relationship between science and ethics continues to have a long, complex history. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley raises profound, disturbing questions about the nature of life as well as our existence: what does it mean to be human and where do we draw the line between technological advances and our humanity? Traditionally, science does not concern itself with the effects these advancements will have on humans. Many scientists attempt to play God and create things which may or may not be ethical. As a result, these advancements are left in the hands of those who are irresponsible. In today’s society, fast advancing technology is allowing scientists to overstep ethical boundaries without adhering to the consequences.
The relationship between ethics and science can pose a magnitude of risks without regulation and proper course of action. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a scientist oversteps the ethical boundaries that has unexpected and unwanted consequences. Shelley writes to warn people of the potential dangers of untested experiments. Her main character, Viktor, wants to find a greater purpose in life (p 14). Shelley writes, “A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility.” (49-50) Viktor becomes captivated by his masterpiece. People should not let their passions drive them to madness. Shelly is explaining how the pursuit of knowledge should be no exception. If the study weakens your inhibitions and destroys your appreciation for life’s simple pleasures then the study is “not benefiting the human mind” (50). Meaning, in the midst of any science experiment you should ensure the health and safety of others first. Viktor becomes obsessed and isolated as he says “…months passed…it was the most beautiful season…but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (49). This quote supports Shelley’s statement because he begins to sacrifice his own basic needs for his scientific experiment. He describes how he is unaware of the passing of time and new seasons. After Viktor becomes enthralled in his work, he forgets about the simple pleasures’ life has to offer him. Yet, she still questions the opposing side by comparing scientific progress to that of domestic affections such as; empires in Mexico, slavery in Greece, and the destruction of Peru. With these comparisons, she exemplifies a disastrous effect unwarranted science advancements can have on our society. Potentially harmful scientific experiments are unjustified in the name of new knowledge and discovery. As a society, we must put our health and safety above all.
Furthermore, a harmful experiment can only pose a threat to our way of life. This is exactly what Viktor’s experiment does. His monster kills a multiple people throughout the novel. The doctor is responsible (by default) for the two murders including Justine’s. “Who could arrest a creature capable of scaling the overhanging sides of Mont Saleve?” (70). This quote shows Frankenstein’s internal reflections which determine his decision of confessing about his creation. He knows that this eight foot tall being can be dangerous, but despite this he chooses to stay silent. During the time which this book was written, new scientific advancements were considered scary. Frankenstein chooses to stay silent out of fear that the public will see him as a mad man and shun him from society (72). Scientific experiments are performed for a purpose, however, there is a risk every experiment poses. “…astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time…” (72). This quote describes Viktor’s mental process before creating his monster. He realizes he holds this newly discovered power and does not yet know what to do with it, whether he should do anything at all. Despite his hesitation he continues to move forward with his experiment. This is the difference between an irresponsible scientist and a responsible one. A responsible scientist would have considered the negative consequences his experiment would have.
In fact, Shelley’s novel is no longer a figment of our imagination; now we have new inventions from self-driving cars to designer babies. Similar to Viktor’s creation of Frankenstein scientists have begun to experiment with different genetic codes. In the sixties, formerly known as test tube babies, designer babies are genetically engineered for special traits, varying from low-disease risk to gender selection. A designer baby is a baby genetically engineered “in vitro” which is a type of assisted reproductive technology (ART). According to an article published by WLRN of Miami South Florida, a Chinese scientist named He Jianki says “he used human embryos modified with gene-editing technique CRISPR to create two twin girls.” The article reports Jianki had his team perform “gene surgery” to protect the embryos from human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV. Although these babies sound fabulous the science community worldwide has been highly critical. An article written by a science reporter, Angela Chen, explains how Jianki did not inform anyone his experiment was being done. He failed to go through a review process to ensure his evidence was credible before the public had a chance to learn about it. This is one of the prime examples as to why it is important to have ethical safeguards when it comes to high risk scientific experiments. Chen writes, “at the end of the Hong Kong Summit, the organizing committee released a statement concluding that “the scientific understanding and technical requirements for clinical practice remain too uncertain and the risks too great to permit clinical trials of germline editing at this time.” Regardless of the public’s excitement no one is yet certain of the risks of gene editing. Gene editing is highly probable to be harmful towards the baby. The issue is, as a society, we don’t know yet, which is the problem.
It is clear that the relationship between ethics and science is complicated and can pose a magnitude of risks without proper regulations and course of action. Those considering designing their child’s genetic code are unable to see the possible damages which could be produced, such as new diseases. By allowing scientists to select and remake genetic codes, they are the new God. Although scientists are not aware of the damages it can do to babies in the future, they will soon have the advanced technology to create other new life forms. The question of ethics remains; just because we are capable of doing something doesn’t mean we should.