The Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad (Christian Daily) asked MercatorNet to do an ethical forecast for the coming year. Here is an edited version of our contribution.

What will be the ethical controversies in the headlines of 2016?

Of course, this depends on where you live and what your ethics are. MercatorNet is based in Australia and New Zealand and our bias is a focus on human dignity and placing the person at the centre of media debates about popular culture, the family, sexuality, bioethics, religion and law. So we tend to read headlines on these issues.

With this in mind, here are our predictions.

At a global level, migration will almost certainly be the biggest ethical issue of 2016. Even in distant Australia, which will take about 26,000 refugees in 2015-16, a drop in the bucket compared to Europe, migration arouses passionate debate. Expect controversies about every aspect of accommodating and integrating thousands of refugees, most of them Muslim.

According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were nearly 60 million refugees and internally displaced people in 2014. Perhaps the sleeping ethical issue is what Pope Francis has called “the globalisation of indifference”. Europe is understandably rattled by the invasion of a million refugees from the Middle East and beyond, but what about the other 59 million? Who cares about them?

In Australia, the biggest debate of the year will certainly be same-sex marriage. It is the last major English-speaking country where marriage is still defined as between a man and a woman. The country is gearing up for an intense debate over whether the State should have the power to redefine a natural institution.

But same-sex marriage will be a huge issue in the United States, as well, where it was legalised last year by the Supreme Court. Since the ultimate aim of the LGBT community is not a cosy marriage, but social acceptance of their lifestyle, I believe that we will see conflicts constantly springing up around the country when married same-sex couples feel that they are denied their rights. (They will probably avert their eyes from serious ethical consequence: the rise of surrogacy. Their bundles of joy will have to be outsourced, mostly to poor women in poor countries.)

The second issue was triggered by the triumph of same-sex marriage, transgender rights. Immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision, transgender activists like Caitlyn Jenner suddenly became the darlings of the media. The core ethical issue of whether we are entitled to define our own identity is one that extends from sexuality into education and politics. Although only a tiny fraction of the population is transgender, accommodating their demands will be bitterly debated. Should an 8-year-old boy start hormone therapy to transition to being a girl? Should we respect the choice of a 52-year-old man to transition to a 6-year-old girl? (A real story.) 

Conscientious objection is another issue which will often be in the headlines. The pace of legal change is so great that many people are being left behind with their “old-fashioned ethics”. Will governments accommodate their loyalty to deeply felt traditional principles? In Canada, it is possible that doctors will be forced to collaborate in euthanasia, for instance.

The fundamental issue here is how we define morality. Ironically, transgender activists are succeeding in having their identity choices respected, while doctors who “identify” as Christians are being denied theirs. This clash of worldviews will lead to some interesting conundrums.

On the technological side, scientists are calling for an urgent ethical debate about the eugenic potential of CRISPR, a new gene editing technology which will allow us to alter the human genome quickly, accurately, efficiently and cheaply. The era of genetic engineering has dawned. While the production of smarter and faster kids to order is years away, we can expect that entrepreneurs will at least start marketing disease-free embryos.

Another important ethical issue is personal privacy and corporate and government surveillance. On the one hand, we are shocked if intelligence agencies are building up massive files on citizens by tapping into social media, the internet, and government data. On the other, we cheerfully give away personal information in exchange for “free stuff” or just for free, in lurid Facebook posts. This is, so to speak, a sleeper issue, because people are hardly aware of it, until an Edward Snowden reminds them. But it is helping to erode our sense of modesty, to use an old-fashioned term: the circle of intimacy is ever-diminishing.

Finally, I’d nominate, without wanting to sound too alarmist, euthanasia. Canada and California legalised it last year, and right-to-die activists are on a roll. Ignoring the numerous problems which are surfacing in the Netherlands and Belgium, they contend that we have a right not to suffer. Originally euthanasia was meant for terminally-ill people with unbearable suffering. But now it has been extended to people with mental illness, the demented, prisoners and even children. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this issue, it is deeply controversial. We can expect lots of headlines.

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It’s interesting to compare these forecasts with what I might have said 50 years ago in 1966. The biggest ethical controversies in the public square back then were political. These were passionate national conversations about the common good and how to achieve it. In the United States the war on poverty, combating the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, the nuclear arms race, and civil rights for African Americans touched everyone’s conscience.

Today, by and large, the ethical focus has shifted from politics to individual desires. Today’s debates are far more egocentric. The noisiest revolve around the satisfaction of my personal needs, not other people’s right to participate in the common good.  

Having made this daring over-simplification, I must backtrack a little. In 2016 migration, a deeply political debate, will probably be the lead issue and two issues of sexual morality, no-fault divorce and the contraceptive pill, were hot topics in 1966. In fact, the social changes which ensued laid the foundation for today’s me-generation. But the trend is clear: we are moving from a culture of social commitment to a culture of personal contentment.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.