A group of philosophers and bioethicists are aggressively promoting therapies that edit the genetic code in human beings. While seeming to offer moral justification for genetic editing of human DNA, their arguments ignite renewed zeal for the worst kind of tragedies experienced in the 20th century.
The agenda of today’s champions of genetic editing is popularly called “liberal eugenics” because, like the eugenics ideology of the early 20th century, liberal eugenics drives us toward eradication of certain genetic characteristics throughout humanity (the human genome). The advocates of liberal eugenics also typically demonstrate enthusiasm for genetic enhancement of human beings: applying genetic editing therapies to increase intelligence, strength, attractiveness, moral attitudes, etc.
Unlike the earlier eugenics ideology, however, liberal eugenics claims to achieve these ends through the free choices of parents rather than forceful action by government and medical professionals.
Nicholas Agar argues that genetic enhancements are just as morally and practically desirable as the commonly supported efforts to improve education for children. In both cases, we are increasing the potential for children to enjoy greater productivity and competitive advantages throughout life.
Agar also draws on the common acceptance in society of the unique, born characteristics of children. He claims that, if we are allowed to accept certain genetic traits when we have the capability to change them, we should be just as morally free to introduce new genetic characteristics or arrangements.
John Rawls (representing a more neoliberal philosophy now associated with liberal eugenics) promoted a more democratic orientation. Rawls thought that, if all persons were put in a hypothetical “original position” where they each have input in designing society, they would choose to maximize the free choices of individuals and enhance the advantages of everyone. These principles supposedly support universal genetic engineering that would eliminate instances of genetic “disease” and “defects”.
Ronald Dworkin (also a neoliberal theorist currently associated with liberal eugenics) gives moral priority to the “success” of any human life and the right of any individual to live out their own definition of a successful life. Dworkin interprets these principles as encouraging genetic enhancement of persons to give them more choices of life paths and greater chance at success.
Jonathan Glover reveals that the advocates of liberal eugenics are primarily concerned with genetic editing that improves the functional capability of persons by eliminating any characteristic that “impairs the capacity for human flourishing.” These characteristics are those that we typically label as “disabilities” in today’s world. Glover also shows sympathy for individuals with “impairments” that cause them to experience social disadvantage.
Many advocates of liberal eugenics like Martin Gunderson and Peter Singer defend their position with a selective and biased appeal to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant is arguably the most influential philosopher of the post-Enlightenment era, especially because he appears to give a justification for moral principles – such as treating other human beings as you would want them to behave toward you – based only on human reason rather than metaphysical and religious concepts such as God. Such theorists ignore the substantial philosophical errors and dilemmas in Kant’s philosophy that have been written about for hundreds of years, and they ignore Kant’s own extension of human dignity to unborn human beings.
Singer is infamous (and professionally rewarded) for arguing that moral dignity applies only to beings that exhibit a certain kind of rationality, and therefore born human infants and intellectually disabled individuals may be killed, while some non-human animals deserve the protection of human rights (Singer 2009). Singer and others claim a moral warrant to protect society from “draining of limited resources” when caring for disabled or functionally impaired citizens.
Most of the justifications for genetic editing of humans that are presented by liberal eugenicists draw on moral principles, common societal practices, and practical desires of parents that are immediately attractive. They appeal to an intellectually shallow common sense.
Upon further consideration, however, liberal eugenics leads us down a road that is deeply immoral and tragic.
Liberal eugenics, if put into practice, drastically increases government power and the tyranny of political interests over the imposed definitions of morality, human nature, and desirability of each individual person. Parents become unwitting pawns in giving away their freedoms. Advocates of liberal eugenics admit that governments may actively fund and influence select genetic enhancements and may very well impose mandatory enhancements (Allen Buchanan, 2011, even proposes a Global Institute for Justice in Innovation to influence the distribution of genetic enhancements).
Many of the proponents of liberal eugenics have logically extended their arguments to advocating not a freedom, but an obligation to genetically enhance human beings. (For example, Savulescu 2001, 2008, and 2011, and Buchanan, Brock, Daniels, and Wikler, 2000.)
Wealthy and privileged parents as well as privileged human races will very likely benefit to the detriment of the poor and those races (especially Black or African American) traditionally discriminated against. The Americans most likely to engage in IVF (in vitro fertilization), which is part of the genetic editing process, are white and wealthy (Dorothy Roberts, 1997).
The relationship between parents and children will move away from unconditional love and celebration of the mystery of unique individuals toward an attitude of manufacturing, urging competitive success, and radically imposing parental preferences that can be influenced by unhealthy psychological needs that are unmet in the parents’ lives.
Genetically edited children will lose the sense of mystery and wonder at their uniquely designed creation, and this can lead to identity crises, religious and spiritual incapacity, perfectionism based on narrow goals, etc.
Humanity and its human genome will be altered irrevocably and unpredictably in ways that decrease diversity and all of its evolutionary and social benefits, can unintentionally increase genetic abnormalities or persistent “diseases” that decrease human function, and create new forms of inequality and discrimination.
Respect for the dignity and timeless value of human nature for true fulfillment and joy will be undermined, perhaps forever, and the genetic alteration of the human genome may eliminate essential characteristics of human nature in future generations.
There is much to think about. Lots to fear.
We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
~ Carl Sagan