Genetic Modification and Human Ontology

Imagine a world where human beings weren’t susceptible to diseases, where we were all strong and smart, where we couldn’t feel pain and could be put in a state of ecstasy due to things which today produce only mild excitement. Imagine a world where human beings could fly of their own volition, where we have gills and could breathe under water, where we could see the entire electromagnetic spectrum, smell as richly as a dog, and hear as richly as a bat. These advances are far off, if possible at all (and whether we’d even want them is a different question), but the debate around genetic modification or engineering is a heated one. There are host of objections to genetic modification, but there is one in relation to morality that is rarely, if ever, addressed. Before I focus on that one, I’ll mention a few common objections that are considered, as a way to set up some background conditions to why the particular ethical consideration I have in mind is more interesting.

The first one I’ll mention is the “who are we to play God” argument. I’m really not going to focus on this one too much as I believe it’s almost completely based on a false assumption. And not just the assumption that god exists, but that there is something intrinsically valuable and ordained about the types of human beings that we are. This argument says that god made us a certain way for a certain reason and we have no right to modify his design. I reject the idea of deities, so this argument is a bit of a non-starter for me. But if this is the kind of argument you make, I would question some of the principles it’s based on. If god made us to be angry and jealous and violent and hateful, if god made us to have tendencies towards rape and murder and cruelty, if god made us to get cancer, and autism, and alzheimers disease and parkinson’s disease, well, I question his engineering skills.

If we embrace a naturalism, the question of who are we to play god is answered by, why shouldn’t we? Homo sapiens are the result of an incredibly long evolutionary process, there is nothing sacred about the particular genome we have right now; there is nothing pre-ordained in the human genotype. We are not the culmination of some directed process resulting in the perfect biological organism. We are what we are. We could have been different. And a million years from now, maybe we will be. Evolution is not over, and who knows what kind of persons will walk this earth far in the future (assuming we’re still around at all).

So I see nothing inherently wrong with altering the human genome. And how many of us would really say it was wrong to remove our susceptibility to cancer and neurological disorders? How many people would say “no, I don’t want to make it so human beings don’t get autism, that’s wrong and against nature”? What is medicine, if not an attempt to do these very things? What is the difference between a penicillin shot or vaccinations, and changing our DNA so those shots aren’t necessary in the first place? Science and medicine IS playing god.

Other arguments focus on practical ethical issues that would arise from this sort of research and possibility. I find these questions important, so I’ll mention them as well. The first has to do with ethical implications of the research itself, and particularly, the process of perfecting this sort of technology. How much suffering, how much death and deformity and failure will occur before scientists are able to perfect this process and bring to term healthy babies that grow and develop normally? When the technology is available, who will it be available for? Who will have access to it, and what are the implications of this for society? When we can be super strong and super fast, what are the implications for sports? When we can be super smart, what are the implications for education? There is an endless list of these sorts of questions that need to be addressed, which I won’t address here.

The issue that I’ve been bouncing around in my head cuts right to the very root of our entire enterprise of morality. There are a variety of naturalistic accounts of morality, and though there is much they disagree on, there are certain common underlying factors that few would deny. Whether you see morality as developing certain virtuous traits, or about maximizing well being, or about doing certain duties, ethics is in general about choosing how to act, how to treat other people, and about the kinds of people we want to be. These questions are going to be rooted in (or at the very least constrained by) the ways in which behavior affects the conscious states of organisms able to experience consciousness. The ways in which we define well being, or happiness, or pleasure, or virtue, or duty are dependent upon facts of our biology. If personal autonomy is important in ethics, it’s because we are a certain type of biological organism for which having autonomy, or engaging in autonomous actions, leads to happiness/well being/fulfillment. If we value giving or receiving kindness, compassion and love it is because we are a certain type of biological organism who is put in a positive state of being as the result of those types of interactions. Anything we can possibly value as human beings, and the ability to be put into positive or negative emotional states, is going to be dependent on our psychology, our neurophysiology, our biology.

So the real danger that I see in altering the human genome (significantly) is that the very metaethical base from which we ground our ethical theories is what we might conceivably change in the process of genetic modification. Let me try to be clear about what I’m saying. If what is or is not an ethical truth is contingent on the types of biological organisms that we are, then changing the types of biological organisms that we are will change the nature of what is or is not ethical. Imagine an alien species whose evolutionary history didn’t contain the social nature of the development that our primate ancestors went through. These beings are very individual and don’t find value in the kinds of social relationships that we humans do (whether on the family level or friendship level or community level). Can we make statements about how they ought to treat each other based off how we think we ought to treat each other? If you’re answer to that is “yes”, feel free to comment below, as I won’t delve into a defense of why I think the answer is no in the post.

Take another example. Imagine an alien species where the young can only survive to adulthood if they are given no parental care (no love, no compassion, no kindness) during their formative years. If they are shown any sort of compassionate care, they simply don’t develop the right kinds of cognitive processes to become fully functional adults. Being the recipient of kindness is actually psychologically damaging. These aliens would consider it incredibly immoral to treat their young with what we call love and compassion, since it would bar them from actualizing their potential as the types of beings they can be.

These aren’t the best examples, but they’ll serve for now. The point is that if we embrace a naturalism about metaphysics and about morality, then moral statements like love each other, be kind, be generous, be compassionate, etc…aren’t universally true, but are rather, objectively true given the types of biological organisms we are. Changing the types of biological organisms that we are could conceivably change what is or is not right to do in any particular situation. It might change the very people that we should be striving to be. Yes, it’s unlikely we’ll change ourselves to the point where harming others is a good thing (though not impossible), but to what degree our systems of ethics will have to change is not something we can predict in advance. Now, let me be clear. I’m not making the naturalistic fallacy (or at least I’m not trying to). My point is that facts about our biology and psychology are going to *constrain* our ethical theories, not wholly *determine* them. Ethics is tricky business. Philosophers have been arguing about it for thousands of years, and while we all have some intuitive notions of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, we’re certainly not anywhere close to having all the answers. Changing who we are as human beings will cause us to have to rethink some problematic notions. If only some people are modified do we have multiple competing “true” ethical systems? If the types of modifications that are made are always changing are we always going to be reshaping our ethics? As I said at the beginning, I find nothing inherently valuable about the types of biological organisms that we happen to be at this moment in time in our evolutionary history, so I am not claiming we shouldn’t move forward with genetic modification because of these considerations. I’m simply making a call to be aware that the issue exists, and it’s something that would need to be addressed, over and above the normal ethical considerations discussed surrounding these issues.