July 27, 2004

Improving ourselves, not others

From self-help books to germline genetic manipulation:

However, if our happiness as individuals is impeded by desires and emotions that we want to disown, there are more everyday ways to try to change ourselves than using genetic modification. Perhaps we are best off if we can make the changes we desire through individual self-examination and insight, associating with people who already seem to have the kind of species-atypical psychological makeup that we aspire to, reading books about the experiences of such people, and so on.

Yet some of the desires and emotions that we want to disown might be too deep for us to reach by these methods. In this case, I see nothing wrong in principle with more direct physical changes to ourselves, such as if we can design safe, effective drugs that help reduce our craving for sugar (or our fear of death, and so on).

The point of this debate, then, should not be that there is a general moral rule against tampering with our inherited nature. Indeed, such tampering might be justified. Rather, we need to acknowledge that it would necessarily be a piecemeal, iterative process. It would begin with efforts by individuals to change those aspects of themselves that they rationally disapprove of. At one end of the spectrum of possibilities, a program of genetic alteration of the personalities of our children would be undesirable. All that said, there is no overriding objection to using technological means to modify our own personalities, and ultimately to reshape human nature. After all, self-help books are a type of technology too [italics mine].

Au contraire, mon frere. You were going great up until the "reshape human nature" bit, at which point you reached too far and fell on your face.

Germline genetic alteration, according to the article, is undesirable because it's "risky" and because it "may never be feasible." In other words, it's undesirable for technical reasons. These are NOT the only, or the most important, reasons why we should not manipulate our germline.

Self-improvement is one thing; if I choose to take Prozac or have my vision corrected surgically, or even tinker with my own genes, I'm engaged in self improvement, which is one of the most admirable and impressive human abilities.

But when I meddle with the germline--even when the technology has been perfected and I am able to do exactly what I wish to do with no risks of making a mistake--I'm no longer engaged in self-improvement. I'm engaged in other improvement, of a profound and largely irreversible kind.

Who among us is arrogant enough to presume to know what makes a "better" human being?

On one hand, this kind of hubris has been deployed in defense of genocide. On the other hand, it doesn't seem that different from a parent's efforts to prevent birth "defects" by seeking quality prenatal care.

The crucial distinction may be between the protection of others, and the improvement of others. Protection may sometimes be justified, as when a mother makes the decision that her unborn child would be better off without cerebral palsy. Even here, the decision has to be made very carefully.

The "improvement" of others through manipulation of the germline is too presumptuous. We cannot know that a higher IQ or an increased lifespan, no matter how much we may want those things for ourselves, will benefit someone who has not yet been born.

Self-improvement and other-protection can be justified. Other-improvement cannot be, so long as we respect each person's privilege and burden to make these decisions for themselves.

(Via political theory daily review.)

Posted by Carey at July 27, 2004 10:40 AM
Comments

You're proposing the Prime Directive of genetic manipulation! Ah... Lord of the Rings meets Star Trek.

And you touch on the following, but not enough: What if our self-improvement, genetic or otherwise, leads us to have children that wouldn't have been born otherwise? An alcoholic who turns it around after treatment, and has kids. Isn't that messing with the germline, in a small but measurable way?

Wilt Chamberlain, and that sperm-clinic doctor, passed on a lot of rare (and possibly desirable) genes. But everyone is passing on some traits, all the time.

You ask: "Who among us is arrogant enough to presume to know what makes a "better" human being?"

I venture: every parent! Or at least, those who makes decisions regarding the raising of their child. Not just the ones aborting sick fetuses, all those who think they're doing the world a favor by having kids.

What I'm trying to say is, if you want to legislate against messing with the germ line, you're going to have to start regulalating childbirth, now.

Or, we can do what we've always done: have lots of sex and let the next generation deal with the consequences.

Posted by: Nick G at July 27, 2004 10:44 PM

I'd argue that the ethics of germ line modification depends on the trait being modified. There's intrinsic reason not to prefer a naturally occurring genome to an engineered genome. I can imagine a lot of frivolous or irresponsible uses for germ cell modification, but I can also foresee a lot of responsible applications.

Like any medical procedure, germ cell modification will have risks and benefits. The fact is that we don't understand nearly enough about the genome to justify "cosmetic" modifications. We'll probably be able to tweak height genes in the next few decades--but we'll probably never have enough clinical evidence to justify doing that just for the hell of it.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at August 1, 2004 12:14 AM