Resolving ethical issues with all deliberate speed

When he joined the Carter administration as White House Counsel in 1979, Lloyd N. Cutler recalled his ``distinct surprise'' at learning about the effect of television news on the President. ``TV news vastly increases the number of people who get interested in an issue and care about the outcome,'' wrote Mr. Cutler in an article first published in Foreign Policy in 1984 and now reprinted (because the issue is still relevant) in a recent Kettering Review.

``If an ominous foreign event is featured on TV news,'' he continued, ``the President and his advisers feel bound to make a response in time for the next evening news broadcast.''

Examining the impact of TV news on various events - including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the massacres at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, and the Soviet destruction of a South Korean airliner in 1983 - Cutler pointed in each case to its ``damaging effect on the time available for crisis decisions.''

The real problem, he concluded, is that television tends to ``speed up the decisionmaking process on issues that TV news is featuring.''

Is television really to blame? Certainly, when it speeds things up irresponsibly. But the issue must be put in a wider context.

Television simply provides what its viewers accept. And one thing we seem to accept unquestioningly is that speed itself is an absolute good. It's thought to be so good, in fact, that we often overlook the ethical dilemmas it poses.

Two things crossed my desk recently that further illustrate the problem of speed. One was a New York Times story by Robert Lindsey about the increasing popularity of ``motivational gurus.'' Hired by US businesses to lead employee seminars, they use ``New Age'' training techniques often based on Eastern occultism and mysticism to change the way employees think.

Some employees, citing their freedom of religion and their fears of mind control and brainwashing, are objecting. But one training-program executive candidly summed up the goals of his program. ``The traditional approach to bringing about change is less than effective,'' said James Selman of a group called Transformational Technologies, ``because traditional change takes a long time. We are looking for ways to speed up change....''

The other item of interest was the decision by the Patent and Trademark Office that permits inventors using gene-splicing techniques to patent the new forms of animal life they create. The announcement, not surprisingly, provoked concern that such a move could stimulate production of some pretty unsavory side-effects - and, carried to its logical extreme, could even open the way for production of higher forms of animal life and even of new, patentable, ``designer'' people.

Why the commercial interest? Again, the answer is speed. Using selective breeding to make beefier bulls or hardier hogs can take decades. Producing them through genetic technology accelerates the process.

Now, all this is not to denigrate the virtues of quickness. Speed is an admirable quality, much preferable to torpor and sluggishness. But it needs to be distinguished from mere expediency. My dictionary defines the latter term as doing what is practical and efficient. It's more commonly used, however, in a negative sense, to describe the subordination of moral principle for the sake of reaching a goal. Either way, it traces its root meaning to the word expedite. In Latin, that means literally ``to free one who is caught by the foot.'' Figuratively, it means to accelerate, hasten, or speed.

The problem with expediency is that it tends to speed lightfootedly past serious ethical dilemmas without so much as a sideways glance. Is it right that presidents should, in the course of a single day, formulate policies that could last for decades, launch wars, and cost billions?

On the other hand, is it right for presidents to waffle and shilly-shally? Neither side is inevitably right. That's why it's called a dilemma.

The mark of expediency - and, sadly, of much that is wrong in contemporary society - is that it assumes such dilemmas don't matter. Do employees have religious misgivings? Let them stand aside as we press toward the bottom line. Can life be invented, owned, and sold? Who cares, so long as our cows give more milk for less work.

All of which points to a central dilemma of our age. On the one hand, technology is speeding up the world's processes. On the other, the need for quiet, leisurely reflection about ethical issues - to help us make sense of all that speed - has never been greater.

The hallmark of an ethical society, after all, is the recognition that ethical dilemmas exist. The hallmark of a technocracy is the expediency that pretends they don't.

A Monday column

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