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Practice Makes Perfect

At what cost to humanity?

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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And then there's the question of what type of enhancements we're likely to make. Do we trust ourselves to know what the ideal designer baby actually is? Libertarians don't trust planned economies; should we plan genomes? Environmentalists don't want to alter the natural ecosystem; should we alter the human organism? While isolated acts of cosmetic enhancement (height, gender, breast size, face, etc.) may improve someone's lot in life, their widespread use will transform our social structures while feeding our baser desires and perpetuating prejudices. What effect will widespread enhancement use have on the disabled, the diseased, the unenhanced, and the dying? Since much of our flourishing is social, considering the broad social effects is imperative.

Yet all three of these titles dismiss these reservations as religious drivel. They need the objections to be religious so they can treat them as illegitimate grounds for public policy. But in fact, the leading voices in opposition to genetic engineering all make secular arguments, and Green has to invent his own pseudo-theology to find a counterexample: "We may smile, but for many people the risk of provoking God's anger by genetic engineering is anything but funny." Harris is no better, as he claims religious thinkers argue that "it is tempting fate or divine wrath to play God and intervene in the natural order." But he, too, cites no one who makes these claims. Is any of this true? The late Pope John Paul II taught that genetic therapy should be "considered in principle as desirable, provided that it tends to real promotion of the personal well-being of man, without harming his integrity or worsening his life conditions." Amazingly, Green cites this, yet persists in his provoke-God's-anger rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Korobkin asserts that respect for the human embryo "is rooted in religious belief that by its very nature cannot be contradicted with analytical reasoning" as he argues that the embryo "lacks every trait that could plausibly be considered a characteristic of human moral value except one: it has human DNA." Harris argues that "if the zygote has value because of its potential to become a person, then whatever has the potential to become a zygote [sperm, egg, skin cells via cloning] shares whatever importance the zygote has."

But the counterargument is not that the human zygote is a potential human being, but a human being--a living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development. Where sperm and egg are parts of larger organisms, the embryo is a whole organism that will develop by an internally directed process toward adulthood. Precisely because of what the embryo is now--an embryonic human being--we can confidently predict how it will develop and what its mature stage will be.

Harris concedes that embryos and fetuses may be human beings, but argues that they are not persons. Persons are "capable of valuing their own existence," which excludes "embryos, fetuses, and neonates." That's right: Until "neonates"--newborns, infants--can value their own existence, they merit no protection. Most people will find this doctrine, that some human beings are nonpersons, repellant.

So where are we left? "Never before in history have we had anything like this ability to shape the biological inheritance of our children," Green insists--which does rather undo his thought experiment about the 1900 bioethicist. In fact, never before have we had the potential to get things so wrong. One need not agree with Leon Kass, in whole or in part, to think that he deserves something better than -Harris's refutations: "This is pure Humpty Dumpty!" and "Well, whatever turns you on, Leon."

Sadly, these volumes seldom rise above such levels of discourse, and all three will leave most readers dissatisfied. At the end of Stem Cell Century, Korobkin declares that his "conclusion requires abandoning ... the Kantian imperative ... and adopting a utilitarian form of analysis." In his mind, it's either Kant or Jeremy Bentham. Green closes Babies by Design by proposing that enhancements for designer babies should not "increase unjust inequality and discrimination" but should be "aimed at what is reasonably in the child's best interest." A college sophomore could offer this same advice on a moment's reflection; the real question is what precisely counts as the best interests of the child and society.

Harris's Enhancing Evolution also concludes with ethical principles--or principles which people who don't like biotechnology can be ordered to obey. He stresses that there is a "clear moral obligation to participate in medical research"--an obligation that can be coerced. Comparing research to jury duty, he writes: "If compulsion is justifiable in the case of due process, the same or indeed more powerful arguments would surely justify it in the case of science research." At one point, Green writes that he is "struck by how fast the science is moving." And so he should be--for, curiously, all three books appeared as the field of biotech research was changed by the announcement of a way to produce, from skin cells, embryonic-like stem cells without destroying (or even using) embryos.

The main failing here is symptomatic of much modern bioethical thought: These three works assume that human fulfillment consists only in physical and material perfection. Little attention is paid to the virtues and social practices that make for a life well lived. This is true even when Green asserts that biotechnology will "remedy not only physiological imperfections but also some of the serious moral and spiritual problems facing the world community." Really? This would be a more reassuring comment if anything else in Green's pages demonstrated an inclination toward moral reflection. If we can take anything away from thought experiments that transport us back to earlier days, it should be an emphasis on promoting lives of virtue.

Ryan T. Anderson, assistant editor at First Things, is a Phillips Foundation fellow and assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.