READ MORE: The new person is likely to suffer in their self-image, identity, and relationships.
- What is personal identity?
- Christian insight into the truth of personal identity
- Genetic engineering and personal identity when enhancing human embryos
- Genetic engineering and personal identity when enhancing abilities
- Genetic engineering and personal identity when enhancing physical traits
WHAT IS PERSONAL IDENTITY?
Genetic engineering and personal identity are inherently linked topics. The identity of a person is their experience and perception of what makes them a unique and continuous being throughout life. Identity is also defined in part by a person’s roles and relationships among others.
Both perception and experience are essential to identity.
Although psychology, personality, and consciousness are important to a person’s identity, that identity is more than an idea in the person’s mind. It is not simply what a person wants to be at any given time. Identity is the reality of a person’s existence as a unique physical, mental/intellectual, social, and spiritual being.
Different aspects of an identity will change during a lifetime, even though a person’s essential identity remains constant. The person may intentionally direct these changes, and so may their parents or people they interact with.
Although the present experience of an identity changes, we can never escape the relevance of the past to the present. Because identity includes both mind and experience, a personal identity is present from the moment of a human being’s creation, which is the beginning of experience. The entire history of a person is part of their current identity.
CHRISTIAN INSIGHT INTO THE TRUTH OF PERSONAL IDENTITY
Christians have an even deeper understanding of human identity that saves us from the error of putting too much emphasis on psychology, personality, man-made priorities, or the opinions of peers. It is especially from a Christian perspective that the relationship between genetic engineering and personal identity gain such significance.
While created as an individual, every human person has an identity that is dependent on and fulfilled in their relationship with God. “[God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph 1:5). It is through Christ that we enjoy the core of our identity as a chosen individual who is also part of the Christian church (1 Cor 6:17,
This means that, while we should always strive to refine our identity toward virtue and holiness, the essence of our identity is given, not made.
In fact, Christ’s action has erased any differences based on categories that we use to justify a false sense of belonging and self-interest, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28).
As Michael F. Bird explains: “We have died to the world with its ideologies and identities in favor of a distinct Christian identity shaped by the gospel-story and a network of relationships between God and God’s church. Christians are even incorporated into the story of the cross as a thrice-crucified people: We are crucified with Christ (Gal 2:19-20), we are crucified to the flesh (Gal 5:24), and crucified to the world (Gal 6:14).” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2018/10/a-christian-view-of-human-identity/
It is only through an intimate relationship with God – in obedience, worship, and prayer – that a person can learn who she or he truly is (1 Cor 8:3, 1 Co 6:19-20, Gal 4:9, Prov 19:21, John 15:16). John Calvin rightly proclaimed that, without knowledge of God, a person cannot know their own self. (Calvin, Institutes I.1.1) Jesus declared: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Without guidance in an active relationship with God, our perception of our own identity and the perceptions of others can be dangerously misleading. The full essence of each human identity has yet to be revealed: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).
The Apostle Peter’s definition of every Christian’s purpose is “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). While each person has their own Divinely appointed identity and path in life, every identity has at its core this purpose in holiness and praise.
Christ warned us against foolishly adopting the priorities of a secular society as if they are alternative ways to enhance or fulfill our self-image. Neither status, nor insincere religious piety, nor praise of achievement will fulfill the true destiny of a human being. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)
In contrast to the unwise tendencies of our secular society to encourage shallow, competitive, and self-promoting identities, the Divinely created essence of each person’s identity is glorious. “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8).
CHANGES TO IDENTITY FROM GENETIC EDITS TO HUMAN EMBRYOS
With the transformations in genetic engineering and personal identity of an embryo, parents will generally act as if they are determining the characteristics of a future child, but they are instead changing an existing identity of a human being. It wouldn’t even be possible to alter genes if the embryo didn’t already possess his or her unique DNA.
Genetic engineering of a human embryo is not simply a matter of ordering preferred characteristics off a menu in order to create a new being. It is like sending the waiter back with a cooked meal to make “corrections”. The parents must consider how their actions display respect for the “chef” (God) and for the dignified, unique creation of the child.
The appropriate moral consideration for parents, then, is whether making dramatic changes in the characteristics and identity of their existing child is more important than respecting the child’s miraculous creation and given purpose in the world.
Because each person experiences constant adjustment in their identity and the power to intentionally shape their identity, much of a life experience includes significant amounts of anxiety about who a person “really” is and what they should become. Each person therefore benefits enormously from having a secure knowledge that their core identity has been continuous since their creation by God. In contrast, the experience of being manufactured by other persons in genetic engineering can undermine a person’s faith in being one of those invited to a destiny in Christ.
Parents can’t possibly predict how editing the DNA of their child will affect their child’s future. They need to consider that control over their child’s life path is a fantasy. Believing that such control is possible reflects a lack of faith in God’s omnipotence and providence, and in Christ’s new covenant of redemption and eternal life.
When an unborn child is genetically altered, the message to that person throughout their life is that their conceived nature and identity were not “good enough”. They may imagine that they are unable to experience unconditional love from their parents, other people, or even God.
Any justification expressed by parents for transformations in genetic engineering and personal identity will greatly influence their child’s understanding of their true purpose in life. If parents do not act as if their child’s primary purpose is to embrace a relationship with God, their attempt to alter the child’s characteristics will send a powerful signal to the child that his or her identity is tied to more secular purposes.
Changing certain characteristics of a child might actually cut off possibilities that the child and future adult may have enjoyed. Jesus taught us with his glorious resurrection that challenges and suffering are opportunities for growth and spiritual joy, not aspects of life that are to be despised.
We must also consider the rights of the child to live without genetic engineering imposed by others, especially when the editing is intended to enhance characteristics beyond medical or therapeutic purposes.
The philosopher Jurgen Habermas asks whether the embryonic child, if capable of expressing his or her interests, would consent to being genetically edited. For Habermas, it is impossible to assume with certainty that a child would not prefer to live as an identity with a unique, non-manipulated, and created individual. Any child has a right to the freedom and self-responsibility to modify their own identity. Since the embryonic child does not have the opportunity to express consent, most genetic engineering or enhancement of the child is a severe violation by the parent of the human rights of the child.
GENETIC ENGINEERING AND PERSONAL IDENTITY WHEN ENHANCING ABILITIES
Genetic engineering transforms the physical nature and experience of a person’s lifetime. By enhancing the physical abilities of a person, including mental capabilities tied to the brain, the adult who chooses the enhancement can greatly alter an unborn person’s identity throughout life.
Genetic enhancement of abilities may occur when unborn children are given characteristics that will develop into extraordinary strength, intelligence, memory, sight, etc.
Abilities are also enhanced when a person’s characteristics that are expected to cause “disabilities” are “corrected”. Disability, of course, is only a lack of an ability that others perceive as abnormal and a significant obstacle to thriving in life. People disagree about what it means to “thrive”, and there is great variation in knowledge or discriminatory attitudes about whether certain disabled persons can experience joy in their lives.
Enhancing an unborn child’s future abilities can have some good effects:
- Gaining a body or brain that has greater potential for causing change in the world, achieving goals, or competing successfully with others may create unique opportunities to praise and share the glory of God.
- Increases in capability and achievement as well as the personal fulfillment that comes from acting in the world may enhance opportunities for a genetically altered person to grow in charitable action toward others.
- More capable persons may enjoy greater self-esteem encouraged by praise and admiration from others.
- With a greater love of self and attractiveness to others, genetically enhanced persons may find new opportunities to develop relationships and express love.
- Mentally enhanced persons may have unique opportunities to explore and share greater understanding of our world and of the Divine.
The effects on personal identity from genetic enhancement of abilities, however, can be very damaging:
- Enhancing the abilities of a child eliminates the opportunities for that person to experience life as a normal, average, less capable, or even “disabled” human being. These identities are all worthy of a holy purpose through Christ and dignity as the chosen people of God.
- The person can perceive his or her worth as dependent primarily on abilities that can change unexpectedly throughout life.
- A person with enhanced capabilities from genetic engineering may perceive a distorted relationship with their parents who manufactured them. The engineered child may learn to please their parents through achievement rather than enjoy the security of being unconditionally loved. This unconditional love thrives when parents perceive their children as unique, special, and “given” to them by a higher power (or even by chance). Unfortunately, the economic needs of our society and employers pressure us to give priority to the supposed usefulness and productivity of each person. Disability rights advocates, however, show us that unconditional love flourishes between parents and children who are significantly less capable in some common human activities (for example, Eva Kittay 2000, David Wasserman and Adrienne Asch 2013).
- Abilities are a very shaky foundation for self-esteem, because the always unpredictable moments in life may lead to failure and despair.
- When a person believes they are somehow more capable, they will be tempted to understand their purpose in a way that is more tied to accomplishments. This can pull them away from their true purpose in love of God and others.
- Human capabilities drive the sin of pride. A more capable person can easily stray in worship of himself or herself, or of the creative powers of humanity in general, instead of dependence on God. This is particularly true when the genetically engineered person excels in competition with others.
- As the blogger Eric Barker (Barking Up the Wrong Tree) shares, “people who achieved their extrinsic [achievement based] goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness—none. They spent a huge amount of energy chasing these goals, but when they fulfilled them, they felt the same as they had at the start….” (Jonathan Hari, Lost Connections). Barker says that, “for the past few decades we’ve lived under the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your noggin. And while that is true for some people, more and more research is showing that our dissatisfaction may be due less to a broken brain and more to a broken life.”
- Pride in one’s achievements as accomplished through personal effort alone (without God) necessarily accompanies a judgment of others as less valuable or worthy when they accomplish less. This judgment can be expressed through discrimination, violence, and distance from others who should be loved.
- Worldly achievements happen through the strategic use of a person’s world as a means to a particular end. A person driven to use his or her enhanced abilities may learn to also use other people as objects for manipulation rather than as children of God who could be engaged charitably and lovingly. This is not an extraordinary occurrence; our society already treats its vulnerable citizens terribly while most other people wrestle with extreme pressure to achieve secular goals in their work and lifestyle.
- Emphasis on the abilities of children ignores much of the beauty of human nature. Overcoming challenges and succeeding in competition with others can be satisfying in a way, but a person who lives with an identity that is overly tied to their capabilities may miss out on the joys of relationships, peaceful acceptance, spiritual surrender and fulfillment, appreciation of beauty, etc.
GENETIC ENGINEERING AND PERSONAL IDENTITY WHEN ENHANCING PHYSICAL TRAITS
Genetic engineering will enable parents to determine the physical traits of their child, including such cosmetic changes as eye or hair color, gender, racial features, height, etc.
Removal of certain physical “disabilities” or abnormalities will also radically change a person’s body features.
Attractiveness and normality in one’s physical appearance greatly influence a person’s self-perception and relationships with others.
There are some benefits from being physically attractive and normal:
- A more attractive person (according to others’ judgment) may experience less discrimination and more interest from others.
- People who look “normal” are more easily accepted by others as a peer and assumed to have similar abilities and even attitudes.
- When parents design the genetic features of a child, they may be more pleased and attentive toward their child. Designing traits that are similar to the parents’ features may enhance the parents’ sense of their child as their “own”, and the child may enjoy a greater sense of belonging.
Enhancing a child’s physical attractiveness and normality may also have damaging effects:
- Parents’ emphasis on physical appearance may encourage the child to base their self-esteem on their attractiveness to others rather than growth in moral virtues. They may learn to confuse mutual attraction for authentic love in relationships.
- A person who is aware of having been designed by genetic engineering may experience self-doubt about their value and dignity, if they perceive a break between their unique identity at conception and their re-engineered identity.
- Emphasis on bodily traits increases the perceived value of the body among moral values. This can encourage an unwise pursuit of sexual approval and sexual pleasure that undermines authentic relationships, family life, and respect for the self as more than an object for others. It forms a powerfully addictive distraction from a Divinely ordained purpose in Christ.
- A person who is genetically engineered to remove a disability or abnormality can receive a message that they would not have been loved unconditionally if they still had the physical characteristics with which they were conceived. This can make them highly vulnerable to shame over any other perceived “flaws”, injuries, or declines in health during their lifetime
“WHO AM I?” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, oh God, I am thine!