The Magazine

Practice Makes Perfect

At what cost to humanity?

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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This should be the first warning sign to anyone sitting on the fence. On one side of the debates are some of the world's most thoughtful scholars: The University of Chicago's Leon Kass, Harvard's Michael Sandel, Johns Hopkins's Francis Fukuyama, and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas have different political philosophies and different views on bioethical questions, but all recognize that the issues raised by some new biotechnological possibilities are profound and difficult. On the other side are people who see no serious moral issues anywhere in the neighborhood of biotechnology. Why is creating designer babies ethical? Because they'll be free of disease, and who can be against that? Why are genetic enhancements a good idea? Because they'll make us better--and after all, Harris points out, "If it wasn't good for you, it wouldn't be enhancement."

Yet even when their arguments are more substantial, their materialism and utilitarianism are fatally short-sighted. Much of human fulfillment is social, and we have to consider not just material consequences but how certain biotechnologies may transform the social practices and understandings that contribute to our flourishing. For that matter, some moral principles should guide our research, irrespective of the consequences, and we have to consider what type of respect is due human beings simply because of their humanity.

Much genetic therapy will be good, curing a host of genetic diseases. The problem is that it will not be limited to repairing, and not all enhancements will truly enhance. When scientists found that they could treat muscular dystrophy by genetic therapy, healthy athletes began clamoring to use it. But when do therapies become enhancements? Almost all bioethicists think the distinction is largely meaningless. Harris argues that "the overwhelming moral imperative for both" is to "prevent harm and confer benefit." The result, Green claims, is that these therapies could "narrow the gap between society's haves and have-nots and between developed and developing nations" as they "rectify inequalities of birth." History, however, gives us little reason to suppose he is right.

These books assume a kind of unproblematic Eden awaits us on the far side of biotechnology. Harris predicts parents will "avoid the risk of the genetic roulette that is sexual reproduction." Once all of the options to ensure a genetically healthy child are available, he asks, "could it be ethical not to be a designer?" The end result, Green explains, will be a "world where sex is for fun and reproduction usually takes place in the laboratory." Insisting that "parental love almost always prevails," he does not take seriously the possible consequences for our self-understandings and social practices. What attitude is society likely to adopt towards children when they are manufactured in laboratories? Will people tend to start viewing offspring as a type of property owned by those who paid for them to be produced? Will strict quality controls be put into place and enforced, as with other products of manufacture? What will be the fate of defectives who, somehow, make it through the production process?

And there is more: Might laboratory reproduction undermine the bonds of marriage and the generational ties between mothers (and fathers) and their children? But the real counterargument isn't consequentialist; it is based on the act, the habits of mind and being, and the virtues and vices involved in viewing another human being as an object of technical manufacture. Witness Harris's defense of gender design: "Just as when I choose a designer shirt or dress I am indulging my taste in some directions at least, so it is with gender choice." Should we mention here that kids aren't designer attire? The problem is that Harris and Green ignore the question of whether human beings possess an intrinsic dignity--a dignity that requires that they be treated as personal subjects (and not manufactured objects) who are brought into the world through a union of parents (not the technical fabrication of scientists).