Saturday, June 02, 2007

Reckless hubris on the road to “perfection”

This little book does a nice job of laying out many of the arguments that support genetic “enhancement” and then takes them apart piece by piece from a philosophical perspective. But unfortunately, Sandel neglects to highlight some of the strongest arguments against such offspring-engineering:

Designing one’s offspring for “success” makes assumptions about what “success” entails. The unwritten subtext is usually “financial success,” but is it the parent’s job to build cogs for the empire? Is it one’s destiny and obligation to function in as utilitarian a manner as possible? Does this not make a mockery of “the pursuit of happiness”? Can the happiness of one ever be defined by another?

How can autonomy not be lost when one person overlays their values onto another? Sandel discounts the argument that such bioengineering takes autonomy from its object, but in deciding what features to “enhance” in the building of another person, value judgments are inescapable, and making such choices on behalf of another is by definition a violation of that other’s autonomy. What gives anyone the right to instill math and engineering skills into someone whose temperament better suits them for life as a poet or naturalist? Or even to add height to one who might have been more physically coordinated at their natural height?

Is there an implicit ownership of the subject of one’s design? What happens when an offspring subsequently does not meet the parent’s expectations “after all we spent on designing you”?

Will a child have recourse against “parental malpractice”? If the parent’s choices result in harm, or a parent is negligent in opting for available enhancements, will the child be allowed to seek damages?

Changes in a single gene will have multiple effects via such genetic mechanisms as pleiotropy and epistasis, and these secondary effects can be impossible to predict. For example, what if an increase in growth hormone intended to increase the height of one’s child also shortens their lifespan by five years, or increases their odds of developing cancer, or decreases their IQ by 5 percent? Is there any way to discover all possible outcomes, and would the parent have the right to discount such downsides as being of negligible import? Or, what if a genetic manipulation intended to improve an offspring’s math ability resulted in a 5 percent increase in the chances of the child becoming schizophrenic, or dyslexic, or less attractive? Is the parent morally justified in taking the inevitable risks of their intended enhancement creating unforeseen deficits of any sort?

There is a lesson to be taken from our experience with the unintended consequences that have been observed in the development of our chemical industry; we would be well-advised to comprehend that mucking about in genomes has the potential for unintended consequences exceeding those created by the chemists by many orders of magnitude. Do we really want to bestow that legacy onto the generations that follow us, as we selfishly try to give our own children a leg up in the competition they will face? Do we really believe ourselves to be competent “designers”?