Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Case against Genetic Engineering

Slate's William Saletan, writing at The New York Times, reviews Michael J. Sandel's The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. I have not read Sandel's book, nor do I plan to read it. My case against genetic engineering, to which I will come, may bear no resemblance to Sandel's. But there's no way of learning what Sandel's case is, given Saletan's rather glib criticism of Sandel's book.

Saletan's glibness is evident in passages such as these:
[G]enetic engineering is too big for ethics. It changes human nature, and with it, our notions of good and bad.

When norms change, you can always find old fogeys who grouse that things aren’t the way they used to be....But eventually, the old fogeys die out, and the new norms solidify.

Once gene therapy becomes routine, the case against genetic engineering will sound as quaint as the case against running coaches [a practice apparently unknown before the 1924 Olympics].

In a world...controlled by bioengineering, we would dictate our nature as well as our practices and norms. We would gain unprecedented power to redefine the good. In so doing, we would strip perfection of its independence. Its meaning would evolve as our nature and our ideals evolved.
Saletan, in so many words, professes a tautology: The future will bring what it will bring, and whatever it brings will be the future. Saletan might as well write this: If murder is widely accepted in the future, murder will be acceptable in the future. I doubt very much that Saletan would endorse such a statement. I suspect, rather, that an effort to be clever at Sandel's expense led Saletan down a moral blind alley of his own construction.

What is that moral blind alley? If it is not obvious to you, consider this passage from the entry for moral relativism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.
The definition of MMR* points to Saletan's error. He treats the same (or very much the same) group of persons as being a different group because of the passage of time. In other words, the future just "happens" -- as if people cannot make judgments in the present about the consequences, for them, of pending or reversible decisions.

To come at it a different way, Saletan conflates what could be with what should be. There could be a market for genetic engineering, but should there be such a market? There are, after all, markets for murder, arson, and the fruits of theft (among other such things), but I doubt that Saletan would condone such markets.

The real issue, then, is whether to allow genetic engineering, in light of its consequences. Saletan finally approaches that question when he says that "self-engineering....seizes control of humanity so radically that humanity can no longer judge it."

But Saletan waits until the final paragraph of his review to say even that much. He then quickly closes the review with with smart-alecky observations instead of pursuing the consequences of genetic engineering. Perhaps he thinks that he has done so when, earlier in the review, he writes this:
The older half of me shares [Sandel's] dismay that some parents feel blamed for carrying babies with Down syndrome to term. But my younger half cringes at his flight from the “burden of decision” and “explosion of responsibility” that come with our expanding genetic power. Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness [without genetic engineering] and a world of freedom and responsibility [with genetic engineering], I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow.
There again, Saletan assumes that the future will be what it will be. More importantly, he badly mischaracterizes the world of today. Our present world, contra Saletan, is (relative to the brave new world of genetic engineering) one of freedom and responsibility. To use the example of a baby with Down syndrome (properly Down's syndrome), parents who choose to abort such a baby (for that is what Saletan means) have every bit as much "freedom" to make that choice (under today's abortion laws) and are just as responsible (morally) for their decision as they would be if they were to choose bioengineering instead. Genetic engineering simply introduces different "freedoms."

Thus we come to the real issue, which is the wisdom (or not) of allowing genetic engineering in the first place. For, as we know from our experience with the regulatory-welfare state, once an undesirable practice gains the state's approbation and encouragement it becomes the norm.

And that is the broad case against allowing genetic engineering: If it gains a government-approved foothold it will become the norm. It will result in foreseeable (and unforeseeable) changes in the human condition. It will cause most of us who are alive today to wish that it had never been allowed in the first place.

How so? Consider the specific case against genetic engineering:
  • Following upon (but not supplanting) abortion, it would enable humans to retreat further from the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of the procreative act. The prospective acceptance of responsibility for our actions is a restraining influence upon which civil society depends. That restraining influence has been lessened enough by such elitist initiatives as the legalization of abortion, leniency in the punishment of criminals, and permissiveness in the face of disruptive speech and behavior in public schools.
  • It would reinforce the attitude -- inherent in abortion -- that humans are mere machines to be overhauled or junked at will. It would, in other words, take us another giant step down the slippery slope toward state-condoned (if not state-conducted) euthanasia.
  • From there it would be an easy step for the state (controlled by "liberal" elites) to dictate who may have children, how many children they may have, the gender-mix of the children, the occupations those children may pursue, etc., etc., etc.
Yes, genetic engineering could have some positive consequences (e.g., reducing the number of children born with Down's syndrome). But the prospect of such consequences should not eclipse the broad, fundamental, negative consequences for human dignity and liberty.
* The validity of MMR is a matter for another post...sometime, perhaps.