In The Wisdom of a Moral Panic, Ross Douthat responds to one example of the moral innovator’s typical claim that people once rejected with vivid slippery-slope arguments something we all now take for granted, meaning that we shouldn’t worry about falling down such slopes with present innovations. Those people were just panicking when had they only stayed calm and let things work themselves out they would have seen it was all for the best.
He is responding to The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber’s application of this argument to in vitro fertilization, which has now achieved “cultural normalization.” True, it has, but Douthat notes:
in the absence of any meaningful regulations and restrictions, IVF has also brought with it precisely the kind of consequences that many people caught up in the so-called “panic” worried about two generations ago. True, we don’t “decant” our babies in the laboratory, à la Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but between the embryos we keep on ice and the ones we create and destroy for scientific research, the normalization of paid surrogacy and the freewheeling marketplace in eggs and sperm, we live in a society that has commodified both reproduction and human life itself in ways that would have seemed dystopian, not only to the social conservatives of an earlier era, but to many of its liberals as well.
Gargan herself mentions “advances in stem cell research” as an “achievement” of IVF and therefore an argument against its first critics and their present day successors (like us), which is revealing, given that those advances involve the destruction of human lives and promote the results of the commodification Douthat notes. And he goes on to observe that there are advantages to not having experienced the innovation, in being “naive.”
The naive culture hasn’t yet implicated itself in the practice it’s trying to assess. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize the costs of a revolution when you haven’t yet tasted its benefits. And the hardest evils to acknowledge and combat are often the ones whose advantages we can’t imagine living without.
That people find they’re okay with an innovation their parents or grandparents rejected doesn’t mean they’re right. It may mean they haven’t noticed what happened. Not everyone who slides down a slippery slope realizes he’s sliding downhill or minds living among the rubble and trash at the bottom.