Ethos Education

The Bourne Legacy: What (if any) limits should be placed on scientific research with the intention of improving the human condition?

Leave a comment

Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding the concept of the Sanctity of Life.
  • Awareness of different forms of reproductive technology and genetic engineering.
  • Understanding of different arguments for and against reproductive technology and genetic engineering.
  • Consideration of future consequences of current advances in reproductive technology and genetic engineering.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on the way that actions can have both positive and negative consequences.
  • Evaluate the basis for determining whether particular scientific research is in the public interest.
  • Evaluate the moral acceptability of using embryonic stem cells for the purposes of providing donor organs for transplant.
  • Analyse the extent to which doctors may be guilty of ‘playing God’ with new medical technology.
  • Write three letters for a newspaper letters page, presenting a positive view of the issues raised in the lesson, a negative view and the student’s own view.


Write up a scenario on the board (see below). Ask the students to think of all the good consequences of the scenario, and then to think of all the possible bad consequences of it. Finally, ask them whether the good outweighs the bad or vice versa. You could repeat this with more than one scenario if you wanted, but one is probably enough. Here are some suggested scenarios:

  • Everybody in the class (including the teacher) should walk out of this lesson and go and do something else instead.
  • Every day after school, each member of the class should indulge themselves by eating a whole multi-portion chocolate cake.
  • Nobody should have to pay for music. All music should be freely available for download online.
  • Property should be outlawed; nobody should be allowed to own anything.
  • [Your own name] should be made World Dictator, with absolute freedom to do whatever they want to.

Explain that in today’s lesson, you are going to be thinking about ethical objections, particularly those from a Christian perspective, to some scientific research. Point out that many scientific developments could be argued as having negative as well as positive consequences. This lesson will explore how scientists attempt to weigh those consequences against one another.


Introduce the following clip from the film The Bourne Legacy (Universal, 2012, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain to students that Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is an agent on a secret programme run by the American Secret Service. He has been conditioned as a super-soldier, and has to regularly take special pills which enable him to perform at an accelerated rate both physically and mentally. He is also dependent on these pills, and if he stops taking them he will not only experience a deterioration of his abilities, but will also die. Aaron is on the run, after his programme was shut down and he survived an attempt to assassinate him. He has rescued Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), one of the scientists who worked on the programme, who has also been targeted for assassination as the powers that be seek to shut down all knowledge of what they have been doing. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the moral rights and wrongs that Aaron and Marta discuss.

  • Start time: 1.04.50 (beginning of chapter 11 of the DVD)
  • End time: 1.11.34
  • Clip length:  6 minutes and 44 seconds

The clip starts with Aaron and Marta in a car, they drive past a police car and then Marta asks ‘Where are we going?’ It ends with Aaron and Marta getting back into the car. The last line is Aaron saying, ‘That’s where we’re going’. Please note that this clip includes three instances of swearing, all close together around 1.06.40. If you would prefer to avoid the swearing, start the clip at 1.08.17 (first line: Marta says, ‘You have to understand…’).

Ask the students how they would answer Aaron’s question about what gave Marta the right to do the things she did to him. How significant is Aaron’s ignorance about some aspects of the project? If he had had full knowledge of what was being done and had been an entirely willing participant, would such a programme be morally acceptable?

Tell the students that, although the situation in the film is an extreme one, it still hangs on someone weighing the possible good against the potential harm of this application of science. That dilemma is one that real scientists face on a regular basis. One such area of scientific debate is the one surrounding stem cell research. Ask the students if any of them are aware of the issue, then give out the following summary from the BBC website:

Ask the students to discuss the balance of potential good and possible harm of using stem cell therapy.

The following news story may also be of interest in discussing this issue:

The goal for the Secret Service in The Bourne Legacy (and the other films in the Bourne series) was to provide super soldiers who were capable of higher levels of performance than ordinary operatives. For the men and women controlling them, the opportunity to ‘play God’ was one that they were reluctant to let slip. Point out to the students that in Genesis 3, when the serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, the last thing he is recorded as saying to her is that if she and Adam eat the fruit, they ‘will be like God’. The temptation to play God is nothing new, and from a Christian perspective is always a bad thing to do. Interestingly, ‘playing God’ is a term usually applied to scientists who are deemed to have overstepped the bounds of what science ought to attempt. In the film clip we can see two different approaches to playing God – the ambitious scientist who wants to achieve more, and the power-hungry soldier who wants to be more than he is.

You could reinforce this point by looking at the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Point out that God has nothing against the construction of tall buildings. When the Bible describes the builders attempting to build a tower that would reach the heavens, the implication is that they are attempting to trespass into God’s realm, asserting themselves as his equals. Christians have traditionally understood this story to be another example of humanity attempting to take God’s role and authority from him and claim it for themselves.

Ask the students if they agree that the people directing Marta’s work were wrong to use science in the way they did. Assuming that all or most hold this view, ask if that has any relevance for real life scientific research. What limits should restrict scientists? What basis should be applied for determining how far is too far for someone to go in the name of scientific discovery? Should there be any limits on what scientists can attempt?


Ask each student to write a series of three letters to a newspaper discussing the issues raised in this lesson. The letters could be about stem cell research, or another contentious scientific subject, or even about scientific research in general. One letter should defend the chosen subject (stem cells, human cloning, etc.) and another should argue against it. The students can write these two letters in whichever order they choose, with one answering the points raised in the other. The third letter should respond to both of the previous letters and give the student the opportunity to express their own views on the subject. At least one of the three letters should demonstrate the student’s understanding of a Christian perspective on the subject.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s