READ MORE: Advocates and parents try to approach a perfection that is imagined and not the fulfillment of human nature.
- Genetic engineering and the goal of perfection
- Improvement necessarily implies perfection
- Perfection through genetic engineering of human embryos
- Dominion over nature doesn’t justify perfection of human beings
GENETIC ENGINEERING AND THE GOAL OF PERFECTION
Scientists, bioethicists, medical professionals, philosophers, and science fiction enthusiasts often dream of developing genetic engineering technology toward the eventual perfection of human beings and humanity itself. That dream implies that human beings can define what other human beings’ perfection entails and that we can at least substantially progress toward that perfection through our own efforts in this world.
Attempts at perfection are not only enacted by the people who boldly dream of it. Even when the current goal of a genetic engineering procedure is limited, it is essentially an attempt at perfection of a human being. (An explanation follows below.)
The human drive toward perfection is not a bad thing in itself. Jesus warned us that only the holiest and most faithful persons would gain eternal life at the side of God. Our redemption and resurrection through Christ’s own resurrection will complete the perfection of our selves.
But are we thinking of perfection in the wrong way? The morally profound and potentially disastrous choice required by genetic engineering of human beings is over the definition of perfection.
Is perfection of human beings an effort at maximizing the particular characteristics that we perceive as valuable, or is it fulfilling a human nature that was already given at the creation of unique, individual identities?
Is our purpose to become perfect as human beings who are chosen to be children of God – achievement of which requires the grace of God? Or should we double down on defining and re-creating human nature according to our ideas of what human beings really should be?
Consider that, since thousands of years before Christ, people have known that the most essential fact of human nature is that God created us in His image. Jesus’ commandments of holiness and love of God and neighbor say nothing about human goals of perfection. Jesus, in fact, emphasized humility and love of people as they are.
This Christian ideal of perfection is not simply improvement of a person up to some abstract, ultimate point on a scale of measurement. It is fulfillment of the human nature already given to us by God. It is ultimately becoming what we truly are: children of God made in His image.
Dazzled by the power of human reason, science, and technology, mankind has for centuries pretended that there are no serious moral implications – and consequences – of our obsession with changing our world, not to mention dictating the ways that children and adults are supposed to behave.
With genetic engineering of human embryos, however, there is nowhere to hide. We must either acknowledge God’s true purpose for human beings in the world, or we will stumble down a road of confusion, error, and ultimately despair over humanity’s rebellion against our own nature.
(I promise to keep enhancing this page with citations from other scholars, as well as a section describing the advocates of human perfection. One step at a time!)
IMPROVEMENT NECESSARILY IMPLIES PERFECTION
The following argument is complex, but people intuitively act on it when they engage in genetic engineering. Understanding the argument will help to understand what is really happening in a genetic engineering procedure and why it can be deeply immoral.
To “improve” anything is to select a preferred characteristic and increase its apparent presence in the thing.
Does the person really intend perfection of something when they enhance a characteristic of that thing, motivated by a vague sense of “improvement”? They probably don’t expect to reach a state of perfection through a single action. What they do intend, however, is to further the process of perfection by not merely changing the thing but enhancing its “goodness”. A thing is always “more” or “less” good, and goodness is only really present when the thing is entirely good in itself. That is what we call perfection.
The necessary relation of improvement to perfection goes beyond the intuitive sense of the person causing the change.
By imagining that the increased presence of a characteristic is an improvement, and not just an insignificant change, we assume that there is value in the characteristic itself. Behind this assumption of value is also a goal.
When we, for example, paint a piece of furniture, our goal is to make it more beautiful. When a doctor intervenes in the physical nature of a patient, their goal is often described as greater health of the patient, and this in turn may refer to goals like greater comfort or potential for achievement of the person.
Striving toward goals like beauty, comfort, or enjoyment is a process that moves forward along a perceived scale of ever greater success. The scale does not end at some measurable point, but extends infinitely to an imagined state of perfection regarding that particular goal.
When we improve a thing by increasing the presence of a characteristic, then, we are motivated by greater achievement of one or more goals that can only be satisfied by perfection. Improvement implies perfection in a particular way that we have chosen as desirable.
We believe we are improving something because we see value in a characteristic. We believe the characteristic has value because it is tied to a goal that also has value. But what is the value of achieving the goal? It is belief that such achievement will improve the total nature of the thing itself.
As we have seen, improvement implies movement toward perfection. By improving something, we are also perfecting the thing in its essential nature.
So if we follow the argument from beginning to end, we can see that enhancing a preferred characteristic ultimately implies a project of perfecting the thing.
To be clear, the argument so far assumes that a person is sincere or clear-headed when they have a sense of “improving” a thing. In practice, however, when people consciously change something, they are usually manipulating it for a purpose other than improving it. In that case, the person does not want to make the thing “better” by enhancing its own “goodness”, but to increase the usefulness of the thing for achieving a personal goal. Unfortunately, people confuse themselves or others by using the term “improvement” for what is really manipulation.
PERFECTION THROUGH GENETIC ENGINEERING OF HUMAN EMBRYOS
As explained in the previous section, whenever an adult engages in improving a child through genetic engineering of a human embryo’s characteristics, they are attempting perfection of the child itself.
Some people will describe genetic engineering as “improvement” when it is really driven by goals that do not seek a better child. The parents may want a guarantee of a better lifestyle when raising the child, a scientist may want to gain knowledge or professional advancement, or a government may want to eliminate perceived, inherited disabilities from society for a host of reasons.
Perfection of a human being is only implied when genetic engineering is sincerely understood by the adults as improvement in the child itself through a change in one or more characteristics. Genetic engineering for improvement, however, shares with other motivations the extraordinary faith of the adults in their own judgment of value.
Improving a human being by changing a particular genetic characteristic requires confidence that the adult knows what characteristics will further the goals that adult has for the child. Human nature, however, is mysteriously complex, and life experience is unpredictable.
Improving a human being through genetic engineering requires a supreme confidence in the power of mankind to intentionally re-create human persons. It assumes that scientists know just what changes in DNA will produce the desired characteristics and that the technology will accurately make the change. It requires faith in the possibility that genetic scientists can actually predict all of the significant effects on the child.
Improving a human being requires a belief in one’s own wisdom in choosing the right goals for another person. As in the improvement of anything, the selection of preferred characteristics of a person in genetic engineering depends on particular goals. Relevant goals include health, status, achievement, wealth, comfort, pleasure, competitiveness, attractiveness, etc.
Improving a human person begins with an assumption that perfection in the achievement of the selected goals is possible. Even more, perfection of those goals must help to attain perfection of the human person in his or her essence.
Do we really think that human beings have the kind of wisdom that produces a true vision of the perfection of another human being?
The goals that motivate genetic engineering reflect mankind’s always limited – and usually corrupted – imagination of the human purpose.
Reaching the pinnacle of some characteristic, such as mental ability, success, beauty, or “health”, is only a distraction from God’s desire for our holiness. Christ wants us to be humble, the “least of these.”
Even worse, trying to perfect another human being means imposing these unwise goals on that person. It can be a form of violence to the core nature of that person as a child of God.
DOMINION OVER NATURE DOESN’T JUSTIFY PERFECTION OF HUMAN BEINGS
The book of Genesis states that mankind was given dominion over the natural world.
The same book of Genesis also distinguishes human beings as made in the image of God. Genesis tells how the first persons tragically denied their fulfilled nature as children of God by taking control over their own, perceived perfection. Cain and Abel then competed to improve their lot by competitively disrespecting the other, and that led to violence and further distance from God.
Though made from the earth, human beings are not the intended objects of mankind’s dominion over nature.
Certainly, mankind’s dominion over nature in science and technology has helped in understanding the magnificence of our world created by God. It has produced an environment that, in many ways, frees mankind from the burden of meeting our basic needs for survival. Most human beings have greater opportunities to turn their focus to spiritual goals and communication of love.
Science and technology, oriented to dominion over nature, are tools with which we have been blessed in our journey toward eternal life with God.
These tools of science and technology, however, are essentially about asserting control over an external nature. Control over human beings and human nature is not the manner in which we are commanded to relate with other.
We are called to love, knowing that the objects of our love are already perfect in the only way that matters: as children of God invited by Christ to the fulfillment of our given nature in eternal life with God.