If there is anything the Internet is good for (beyond cat photos), it is for arguing.
In the spirit of elevating the discourse, I’m going to try and salvage the aftermath of my recent Designer Baby article. In the process, I’ll explain to you exactly how social conservatives view the human enhancement debate.
A quick recap: Peter Lawler wrote an article at Big Think about Designer Babies and how they pose a threat to the middle class. I responded with a brilliant rebuttal that displayed my rapier wit and rhetorical dynamism.
But the chaps at The New Atlantis Futurisms are unhappy with how I portrayed George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics and Peter Lawler in that magnificent post. Peter Lawler also “responded” to me by block-quoting the arguments of ‘Minerva’, a scientist who writes her own blog. Minerva made some astute comments about the social ramifications of human enhancement and worried that I was not considering them; Lawler took her points and used them as a springboard to describe me as “intolerantly judgmental.” What did I say about religion again? Let’s re-read my artful prose:
I have a very, very hard time disagreeing with Haraway that teaching creationism is a form of abuse. Any religious fundamentalism (funny how Lawler neglects Islam, Judaism, and Protestants) is a pestilence. Believe in whatever Supreme Being you so desire, just don’t attempt to derive logic or laws that govern the rest of us from the fictive texts you hold so dear.
Man, that’s great. I claim that fundamentalists teaching their children the Earth is 6000 years old is awful and borderline neglect; Lawler argues that makes me intolerant. He is wrong.
Let me be clear. I do not believe all those who are religious are stupid, abusive, or bad parents. I believe fundamentalists often are those who teach their children Creationism: that evolution is not real, that the Earth is 6000 years old, and that Noah forgot the dinosaurs. Fundamentalists of all religions also attempt to impose their beliefs by law and that should be opposed at all turns. Finally, I grew up Christian, have studied religion more than is probably healthy, and remain far more agnostic than atheist. Let’s drop the “he hates religion” canard and address the actual claims against engineering.
On that note, let me first address Minerva’s concerns about human enhancement, as they are actually cogent and relevant. To begin, Minerva, I agree with you. Enhancement is eugenics. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I support eugenics. Now let me tell you why.
In the bioethics canon, there are few texts as impressive as From Chance to Choice by Alan Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wilker. The second chapter of the book is “Eugenics and Its Shadow” in which the many ethical violations done by Nazis, Social Darwinists, and other eugenicists of the early 20th century are analyzed and explained. In the conclusion of their chapter they argue:
[The abuses of Nazis and Social Darwinists], however, do not lend themselves to condemnation of the eugenicists’ every thought and goal, any more than Nazi cost-benefit thinking condemns cost-benefit thinking. ... Reprehensible as much of the eugenic program was, there is something unobjectionable and perhaps even morally required in the part of its motivation that sought to endow future generations with genes that might enable their lives to go better. We need not abandon this motivation if we can pursue it justly.
Honestly, I’d love to spend more time talking about the nuanced ways in which enhancing children might impact social strata. But the debate isn’t there yet. Folks like Lawler are keeping things as rudimentary as possible.
But, briefly, let me try. Social norms guide what we think of as valuable and good. Enhancement seems as though it will drive a kind of arms race as to who will have the most super kid while also creating a Gattaca-like split between valids and invalids.
The rebuttal here is three-fold. First, there already is tremendous social pressure to raise children a certain way; that’s why I linked to the Achievatron and Tiger mothers in my earlier article. No one denies hyper-parents are a problem, but they exist already without enhancement. Second, are most of the parents you know hyper-parents? Unlikely. Most of the parents you know want to give their kids a good life and help any way they can. When you think of enhancement, think of your friends who are good parents already and how they might use a new technology to help their kids. Third, concerns of a split society arise around every new technology. My job as an ethicist is to help ensure that such a split doesn’t happen, and to fight to close the current gap in things like health care.
Finally, Minerva makes a great point about physical enhancements being the main goal, not moral enhancement. I submit that for serious proponents of human enhancement, the goals are to improve intelligence, morality, and health. For further reading, I suggest John Harris’ “Moral Enhancement and Freedom,” Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson’s “The Perils of of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity,” and David Wasserman and S. Matthew Liao’s “Issues on the Pharmacological Induction of Emotions.” All of these fine essays just begin to deal with the possible ethical consequences of enhancement.
Now, on to the critiques of Mr. Keiper at Futurisms. Here they are, in turn…
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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