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How Conservatives View Human Enhancement
Kyle Munkittrick   Mar 4, 2011   Science Not Fiction  

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.

De BabyOn 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.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


Your essays are well-reasoned and very well written. It is clear your intensions and heart are in the “right” place, that is toward the betterment of humanity. Thank you for writing, for engaging, for caring enough to interact with people who sometimes are insensitive, insulting and mean.
Here is a quote from Ronald Cole-Turner from the lead essay in “Beyond Cloning” that expresses some of the concern: “There is only the individual or at best a couple, making micro decisions that lead, one by one, across a threshold that affects every human being on the planet. If we clone, if we engage in germline modification, it will be a human act that forever changes humanity. . . . It is entirely possible that they, our planetary co-inhabitants, will not want to follow and that they will deeply resent our having excluded them from asking whether we should take the step. It is not for any one person, group of people, religious tradition, or nation to decide the question” (12-13). In short, does a minority have the right to make global changes, even if we are that minority?

Another aspect that creates conflict is, to some extent, you and the far right are having two different conversations. This conflict stems from a disagreement about where we are in history. I think the anti-science camp that clings to creationism is asking the question “should this be done?” Those who are following the science trends, who see genetic engineering as not discrete from AI and computational advance and who recognize this as a world-wide issue are asking “how do we move ahead ethically?”

“how do we move ahead ethically?”

Dor, if you mean far right in the world as a whole you might be correct; however my experience (without knowing the rest of the world) is that the far right in America is not trustworthy, they got America to the top of the heap by violence. One would have to be out of touch to not know that the Michael Savages, Glenn Becks, Hannitys, Limbaughs, and all the rest, are not superficially based; they have a mass following. They do not represent America yet they are a sizable fraction, say >28 percent at this time. Can’t go into detail on the biology-involved dialogue (or monologue) but it is a fact that everyone has a mixture of good & bad intentions, and the American far right has some very bad intentions, they are stealth-control freaks par excellence, they want their people to live longer and others to die earlier—what do you think Bush’s bio-ethics mouthpiece, Leon Kass, meant when he said: “...everyone must die on schedule”? that is to write that it is not only WHAT far-rightists are saying but also the motivations BEHIND what they are saying—and IMO such appears very bad at this time.

“If we clone, if we engage in germline modification, it will be a human act that forever changes humanity. . . . It is entirely possible that they, our planetary co-inhabitants, will not want to follow and that they will deeply resent our having excluded them from asking whether we should take the step.”

Dor, you mention exclusion above, and insensitivity elsewhere in you comment;
what of the insensitivity of those who are permanently perhaps fatally altering the biosphere and not including others in the decisions being made in this regard?: it is a simple question—not overly intellectualized.

The “If we clone…” is a direct quote, not my words. I share it because to be in dialog is to understand the perspective of the other, and, to some extent, I share the view; I think there should be global oversight of some of the emerging technologies.

It is very sad to say that we in the US, are, in some ways, in hateful times. It is distressing and is, I believe, intended to make people too fearful to speak up. So, we must speak up without returning hate for hate.
Granted, there are multiple constituencies and it is an oversimplification to say “this is what the right is saying”; I appologize for that. I think the faithful contingent of the far-right is concerned that genetic engineering is “playing God”; they are asking “should we?” but, yes, I agree that both those on the right and we on the left get used to put forward other agendas.
As for “fatally altering the biosphere” who among us is innocent there? We are an eco-system. Each time we make a purchase, we are being included in the decision-making.
BTW—I did not mean to be insulting by suggesting that over-intellectualizing is a form of escapism; just that even intellectualizing in excess can be unhealthy. I’m sorry if it was offensive.

Not all conservatives are fundamentalists. Not all religious people are creationists as the article defines it.  Darwin went wrong when he concluded that what he saw as the evolution of things in nature meant that it happens without God. Science simply cannot make that conclusion from the observable facts. The observable facts do not exclude the possibility that God is behind it all. The observable facts do not permit a definitive conclusion either way.

The authors who talked about the Nazi eugenics said, “...if we can do it justly.” It cannot be done justly. Either you create someone through genetic engineering whose purpose in life is to achieve your goals and do so without his consent, or you bar some people from having children or otherwise limit their choice of spouse and whether to have kids. No matter how you do it, you unjustly limit people’s freedom.

If “social norms guide what we think of as valuable and good,” well, that is precisely what caused the Nazi abuses, so-called. Eugenics means that some people are unfit to breed. Social norms are whatever the people in power say they are. Put the two together and bam! Nazism. It’ll happen every time.

You can’t be much of an ethicist if you follow social norms as you said. Social norms should follow ethics.

Isn’t that what you’re arguing for, a change in social norms that accepts eugenics based on ethics as you see it?  Yet you claim the opposite.

Or it leaves you in a quandary as to what to base your ethics on, if not social norms.

But whose God, Mario? the Black Lesbian God?

If God exists, his existence is objective and opinions that differ from his actual attributes would be false. Those other opinions would have non-existent objects, or existent objects that are something other than God.

If God wants us to know his attributes, he would make it possible for us to know them. One attribute God would have according to reason, if he exists and is in fact God, is Creator, meaning the origin and sustainer of all things that are not him. Religions that do not include that doctrine would be false. Any religion - therefore, anyone’s god - would suffice insofar as it asserts this point. If the god of a particular religion is not Creator, then the object of that religion is not God, regardless of what they might think.

My point wasn’t about whether God exists or his attributes, but that Darwin exceeded his expertise and the observable scientific facts in claiming what he observed occurred without God. Hawking makes the same mistake.

Note that I have not disputed the validity of his observations regarding the transformation of living things once they exist. I have disputed one of his conclusions only.  And I think that disputation is neutral with respect to the existence of God. An honest atheist or agnostic should be able to agree with it without compromising his faith in the non-existence of God.

I have learned long ago not to engage committed atheists in discussions about God himself. Sooner or later, someone intellectually kicks over the philosophical checkerboard and stomps home.  Usually, each of us accuses the other of doing that.

All I say here is that observable facts do not disprove God’s existence. It is therefore unscientific to say that a possible role for God in creation is itself unscientific.  Therefore, it cannot be abuse to teach the possibility that God created the universe and holds it in existence.

@ Mario
I know not all conservative Christians are creationists or fundementalists. I did not mean to offend and I’m sorry if I did.

By anti-science I mean people who reject evidence based findings.

I would be very careful about defining God as “having the power as Creator.” While you may consider that a key aspect of God, we are at a point in history where such a power is within reach of humanity. We have already created synthetic DNA and if I’m not mistaken, there was recently progress on creating synthetic cell membranes (, the point being, we are getting very close to being able to step into that role. One faith perspective is that we are created cocreators- the way God works in the world in through human advance. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters espouses this view. The Genesis story of Jacob and his goats is a story where Divine Providence is enacted through Jacob’s attempts at manipulating the flocks. This can also be read as a kind of genetic selection.

As far as I know, no one in the h+ movement has killed millions of people nor is suggesting doing so. Comparison to the Nazis is hyperbole and it is dangerous. It is the kind of labeling that could incite violence and that is not a faith perspective. You are not likely to become violent, but the rhetoric is the kind of talk that could lead someone else in that direction and I know that is not your intent.

The kind of genetic engineering that I think is being discussed is to try and put an end to disease. Or perhaps gender selection. What else might it lead to?
And that makes your point about making decisions for the child a good one. How far can a parent extend their wishes? To date it is limited to child-rearing and if a parent is truly abusive, there are safe guards to protect the child. Would we have the same kinds of safety nets for genetic changes?

What scares me is the combination of genetic engineering and the talk of a new species designation. That combination leads to the potential creation of a “less-than” class of people. Even if we are treated humanely, is being treated humanely and being treated justly the same?

@ dor

I am of course not advocating violence, but caution and I appreciate what you say. But I do not agree that what I said foments or endorses violence in any way, not any more than the tone of the article and some of the comments foments and endorses violence against conservatives and creationists. The tone of my rhetoric is actually even more reserved, I believe.

The article makes the comparison to the Nazis, I only followed up on it. I do not believe eugenics, which the article endorses, can be done justly.

One thing we cannot do is create a whole universe out of absolutely nothing by a sheer act of will.  That is Omnipotence. All we can do is modify what is already there. Nor can we foresee all of the effects of what we do. That is Omniscience.

Co-creation is certainly one way of looking at our ability. However, the term also implies a correspondence between what God does or wills and what we choose to do. In an atheistic society, that correspondence would be lacking.

I am also very concerned about the limited consideration of possible future consequences of what is endorsed by some people.

If law is considered as creating that which is “just” then anything can be considered “just.” The power of eugenics coupled with the coercive power of government is a dangerous idea, but especially in the absence of a clear concept of justice that is not only rational but superior to and prior to and more objective than any enacted law or political power.


Thank you. I do not share your theology.  I need sit with what you’ve said.

“If God exists, his existence is objective and opinions that differ from his actual attributes would be false.”

At a Catholic or some other religious blog, you can naturally write “his”; however to male-genderize God at IEET is…
to what purpose? if a provocateur were to postulate a “black lesbian God (or Goddess)” at a Catholic site, what would it mean to the other bloggers? What would it be attempting to suggest or to prove? would it amount to nothing more than a pointless challenge?

@ postfuturist
Thank you. I was put off by the male pronoun. If we’re made in God’s image and God is male where does that leave women. It is similar to labeling women as a sub-species.

@ Mario
1) I know with all my heart you are not advocating violence.
2) “limited consideration of possible future consequences”
I share your concern. Bingo. “The power of eugenics coupled with the coercive power of government is a dangerous idea”. Bingo. Now, what is needed is developing these thoughts and providing evidence. You’re stating the conclusion. How did you get there without bringing God into it?

What makes it difficult to discuss enhancement with extreme right wing Christians is three-fold: there is aggression that uses the rhetoric violence, self-righteousness is confused with piety and the discussions lack the critical thinking needed to craft cogent policies.

violent rhetoric
The rhetoric, wherever it comes from, that paints one side of this issue as evil or as Nazi-like is dangerous. It is what leads some to feel that they are “fighting a just war.” Many or most people who use these arguments are not violent but it makes the violent person (or people) feel righteous and justified. To engage in extreme rhetoric is to perpetuate it.

self-righteousness vs. piety
The God argument makes it difficult to get to the issues that need to be examined. It like beginning by saying “I’m right and you’re wrong because God says so” and then expecting to have an open exchange.

critical thinking
The third reason is using God as the wedge is incomplete. It needs to be for real reasons and then faith is what helps you stay committed personally.
An analogy might be abstinence. If a parent tells the kid “just say no” or “I/God won’t like it” it leads to spiritual immaturity. Because you may contract disease, because hormones as the driver of your life may lead to bad decisions, because our sexual expectations may be formed by early experiences and if you’re engaging in sex for fun and pleasure only what happens after you’ve been married 7+ years, etc.
There has to be a reason that God has objected and for us to understand and embrace that understanding (the law written in our hearts) or else it is just mythology.

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