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Genetic testing and engineering pose complex moral and cultural dilemmas for scientists, philosophers and humanity in general. Some may win, some must lose - how do we reconcile our differences?
Cures and preventative therapies to combat human diseases are helping to improve our health and extend our lifespan. There is, of course, a downside; for example, although we now live longer, we have to endure a poorer quality of life for a much higher percentage of its total span. Being human, we generally consider that life, however difficult, is better than no life at all. But human enhancement, in the sense of making us, in Michael Selgelid's words "better than well," is a subject of intense debate as discussed in his article "A Moderate Approach to Enhancement."
The following "improvements" to our lives are no longer merely speculation.We can, if we want to:
1. Genetically test IVF embryos before they are implanted, so that only those with healthy and positive qualities are chosen.
2. Following on from item 1, parents might eventually select qualities with which to endow their offspring, for example intelligence, height, beauty, strength, etc. These "designer" children would, of course, enjoy better quality lives.
3. Genetic therapy might remove a "disease-causing genetic missing sequence."
4. Following on from item 3, it might then be possible to enhance a person's genome for pure human enhancement where there is no threat to life.
Many people are comfortable with the idea that enhancement procedures could, and should, be used to combat disease providing they are safe. But - to interfere with nature merely for enhancement, just for acquiring "desirable traits" presents, for some, a moral dilemma.
So what is morally wrong with human enhancement?
The main objection put forward by Michael Selgelid is that of the social consequences. The procedures would only be available to those able to afford them, leading to an imbalance in social equality.
"It is hard," he says, "to imagine that they would be made freely available to all via universal healthcare systems, which, due to resource constraints, are often unable to provide even necessary services to all who need them."
It follows from this that wealthy people and their children would do better than poor people and their children, increasing the division between those who have and those who must go without.
We might now look at the philosophy of objectivism as propounded by Russian-born American novelist, Ayn Rand, who maintained that we should not sacrifice our own lives to others, nor should we sacrifice others' lives to ourselves.
In principle, this seems rational, embodies respect for the individual, promotes personal responsibility and rational self-interest, and the constitutional protection of an individual's rights. Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D. in "Against Environmentalism" explains her theory which claims that "things qualify as good or evil, valuable or detrimental, only insofar as they serve or frustrate the ultimate value, and the ultimate value is one's life." Rand says, in The Virtue of Selfishness, page 27:
"Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man - in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life."
But, here there is a difficulty; the need to reconcile asserting the ultimate value of one's own life when it actually devalues the life of another person or persons. How do we reconcile this difficulty?
Why is genetic enhancement different from other kinds of enhancement?
Michael Selgelid points out:
"We already tolerate a wide variety of inequality-promoting non-genetic enhancements."
Selgelid is talking about the comfortable lifestyles of the rich; for example, the sports, music and arts lessons, the special schools and holidays. Is there, he asks, any difference between genetic enhancement and the other kinds of enhancement?
I am not sure whether this is a valid argument. The fact that inequality already exists in society is surely not a good reason to condone further inequalities, in other words, "Two wrongs don't make a right!" What Michael Selgelid actually concludes is that the main difficulty would be "scale." If the practices became widespread, then "their impact on equality could turn out to be much greater than that which results from currently available non-genetic means of enhancement."
Not only would this be unjust, but democracy and social stability could be under threat. There is, already, a great injustice in medical research resources, where 90 per cent of research focusses on ten per cent of global diseases because it targets drugs expected to provide the maximum profit. Quality of life overall could plummet due to the drain on resources caused by genetic human enhancement. As Rand says, inThe Virtue of Selfishness, page 16:
"The concept "value" is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: "of value to whom and for what?"
Empirical and Philosophical Questions
The unresolved questions must address the inequality that might result from unrestricted human enhancement, and the impact that this unrestricted practice might have overall. But, Selgelid asserts, these are really empirical questions, and not purely philosophical questions. The philosophical questions
"...concern how the value of personal liberty should be weighed against social equality and welfare in cases where these values conflict."
This brings into focus the important concept of liberty, although Michael Selgelid is quick to point out that no quality should necessarily have precedence over others.
"Utilitarians," he says, "argue that aggregate benefit is the only thing that ultimately matters to society, ie. the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people, should always be promoted, even at the expense of liberty and equality."
Egalitarians on the other hand, favour equality above all, while libertarians, of course, are intent on the value of liberty. Each stance has values of right and values of wrong due to the weight placed on the quality they emphasise. As far as Selgelid is concerned, this means they are "out-of-line with commonsense, ethical thinking and what is generally considered to be good policy-making."
Michael Selgelid concludes that the answer must be to maintain balance and apply trade-offs between the qualities of liberty, equality and utility in order to determine:
"how great the costs of enhancement would need to be for us to be justified in denying people the freedom to enhance themselves and their offspring, and to what extent."
This, I believe, is one of the most difficult moral dilemmas the human race has had to address and it will be interesting, and maybe even frightening, to see how the situation develops.
· Berliner, Michael S. "Against Environmentalism," Ayn Rand Institute: Accessed 28 December 2013.
· Selgelid, Michael, "A Moderate Approach to Enhancement,"Philosophy Now, Issue 91, July/August 2012.
· Harwood, Jeremy, "Ayn Rand," Philosophy - 100 Great Thinkers, Quercus, 2010.