Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Peter Singer & Michael Sandel on Cosmetic Genetic Engineering

Originally written June 12, 2009


I came across this debate between Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and Peter Singer. You will need to at least listen to the Sandel's portions of the debate in order to fully appreciate what I'm arguing against.

The debate was on cosmetic genetic engineering. While both men agree that genetic therapies should be used to cure things like Huntington's Disease, Marfan syndrome, etc. But Sandel argues that it is at least ethically problematic to alter the genetic structure to improve a person’s “lifestyle” (e.g., sex, height, I.Q.)

I actual
ly think, to my own chagrin, I come out more on Singer’s side. Or, at least I think I disagree on every point of Sandel’s, though I’m sympathetic to his argumentation. I have 7 bullet points, most all addressed in some way by Sandel. I present my opposition to the class.

Reasons to accept cosmetic genetic engineering.

1.The genie is already out of the bottle. No matter how much we argue on the subject, people will use genetic technology to improve their children’s chances in life. Dr. Sandel weaves a convincing mythic tale, but people will still choose self-interest over good morals.

2.“Hyper-parenting” is just a low-tech form of biotechnology. How truly different is genetic engineering from putting a child through the rigors of violin lessons, summer football camps and rote memorization in school? It’s a difference in form but not in type. Isn’t genetic engineering simply making the job easier (and in some cases, attainable at all)? We hire tutors to help kids get higher SAT scores, why would it be immoral to tweak their DNA so that they can now do the same with fewer hours of study (or, give them enough “mental firepower” to do things they might not otherwise be able to do, such as calculus or physical chemistry).

3.Don’t we already, albeit unconsciously, attempt to change our children’s genes by our choice of mates? Don’t men select pretty women, and women intelligent and powerful men, to gain genetic advantage with their offspring? Isn’t genetic engineering just going pro with a game we’ve been playing since time immemorial?

4.Dr. Sandel makes much of being humble and admitting to ourselves that there are things we cannot control. But, isn’t the human story one of incrementally controlling our individual and communal destinies? Isn’t the moment the caveman chose to plant a seed of corn instead of hoping the deer would turn left instead of right the Promethean beginning of man’s attempt to conquer dumb chance with technology? Doesn’t it attest more, not less, to humanity’s glory that we “fight against the dying of the light” and take up arms against Nature’s victimization? Maybe it will make us less holy—perhaps even costing us our souls—but it seems improving our chances or even just making things more convenient is a human good. I doubt very little we are less virtuous than Spartan warriors, but isn’t it a good thing we don’t need to be so virtuous just to survive?

5.The objection I didn’t hear from Sandel but concerns most laypeople I know is the availability of genetic engineering to the poor (or even middle class). I would argue even in the “worst possible scenario” that only the rich could afford to would still be a radical improvement. Now, we live in a world where simple dumb luck determines a person’s intellect and attractiveness. In our Brave New World, now it will be opened up not only to the genetically blessed, but to those who can afford it. Have we not already made progress, all things being equal?

6.Taken point #5 a step further, we can imagine an even worse possible scenario where those who are born with, say, profound physical or mental handicaps live substantially more difficult lives: they receive considerably more ridicule in school, even fewer job opportunities, and less public funding for their welfare. Let’s imagine that the lives of the disable are twice and bad as they are now. But, let’s also assume we reduce the incidents of such disability to 10% of what they are now? Have we not, on a whole, improved the situation five-fold? Even if those unlucky few live profoundly difficult lives, isn’t making it 90% less likely a vast improvement?

7.Sandel says it would fundamentally change our relationship to our children: it would make them a “commodity” like a car. Yes, it might. Not ideal, but is that really an awful outcome? Could not love exist even when chance does not? Why must we assume that the “blind luck” of having children with or without talents would play into our affection for them? Not only that, but how much of our personality are things like I.Q. or physical attributes? When I think of myself, while I happen to like my mental powers (and am not particular fond of my physical ones), I don’t know if I consider either category being “me.” If suddenly tomorrow I became unable to read and write, or go jogging, while my lifestyle would be diminished, I doubt my self-concept would be. Would I be any less “me” when I had less of those things?

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