How Conservatives View Human Enhancement

By Kyle Munkittrick | February 28, 2011 9:54 pm

If there is anything the internet is good for beyond cat photos (see “le sneak” above), it is for arguing. In the spirit of elevating the discourse, I’m going to try and salvage the aftermath of my designer baby post, which itself was a response to Peter Lawler’s post. In the process, I’ll explain to you exactly how social conservatives view the human enhancement debate.

A quick recap: Peter Lawler wrote a post 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. Now, the chaps at The New AtlantisFuturisms 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 blogger Minerva, who writes her own blog. Minerva made some astute comments about the social ramifications of human enhancement and worried 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 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, or 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 is already tremendous social pressure to raise children a certain way, that’s why I linked to the Achievatron and Tiger mothers in the first post. 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.

1. Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”?

Mr. Keiper’s says, No! And he is technically correct (the best kind of correct). Bush himself announced that he was restricting funding on new stem cell lines. A few members of the Council disagreed. They were canned. The remainder of the PCBE supported Bush’s policy and wrote a report about how great it was. That’s right, those who disagreed with Bush’s policy were either dismissed or ignored, and the PCBE never once dissented in a meaningful way from Bush’s established line.

2. Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”?

Again, No! It seems I am either mistaken or lying. I admit it, it was sort of both.

I was fairly glib with my insults flying fast and furious against what Minerva so aptly calls the “un-think tank” that is the PCBE. You see, I conflate the views of the members with the views of the Council itself. For example, let’s see what Leon Kass, who chaired the Council, thinks about abortion:

Twenty-five years ago, abortion was still largely illegal and thought to be immoral, the sexual revolution (made possible by the extramarital use of the pill) was still in its infancy, and few had yet heard about the reproductive rights of single women, homosexual men and lesbians. (Never mind shameless memoirs about one’s own incest!) Then one could argue, without embarrassment, that the new technologies of human reproduction — babies without sex — and their confounding of normal kin relations — who’s the mother: the egg donor, the surrogate who carries and delivers, or the one who rears? — would “undermine the justification and support that biological parenthood gives to the monogamous marriage.”

That is a tone right there of a man who would love teens to know about condoms and birth-control for safe pre-marital sex. Right? Oh, but he’s not done:

Thanks to the sexual revolution, we are able to deny in practice, and increasingly in thought, the inherent procreative teleology of sexuality itself. But, if sex has no intrinsic connection to generating babies, babies need have no necessary connection to sex. Thanks to feminism and the gay rights movement, we are increasingly encouraged to treat the natural heterosexual difference and its preeminence as a matter of “cultural construction.” But if male and female are not normatively complementary and generatively significant, babies need not come from male and female complementarity. Thanks to the prominence and the acceptability of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, stable, monogamous marriage as the ideal home for procreation is no longer the agreed-upon cultural norm. For this new dispensation, the clone is the ideal emblem: the ultimate “single-parent child.”

Are you starting to get a picture of how the PCBE thought about biotechnologies? Did I lump their ideas together with general socially conservative politics? Yes! Was that inappropriate or out-of-line with how they think? No, not at all. Kass was the Chair of Bush’s Council, he was the guiding light, the overseer, the big picture guy. So did they talk about abstinence only sex ed? No, they didn’t, you got me. Did they support safe-sex ed? Hell no.

3. Was the council filled with terrible thinkers and philosophers?

Alright, that was mean-spirited. I take it back. Sorry.

That said: Charles Krauthammer, torture cheerleader, was asked questions of human ethics in all seriousness. The mind, it boggles.

4. Was the council a rubber-stamp for Bush and Cheney’s policies?

I refer  you to my answers to question 1. You be the judge.

Finally (whew, this is a long one) we return to Peter Lawler’s rhetorical cacophony (i.e. arguments).

Lawler argues, in various turns, that designer babies will cause: 1) a performance arms-race, 2) an obsession with productivity over personhood 3) a loss of making children “the old fashioned way” 4) discrimination against the disabled 5) outlawing religion and 6) individuals to lose autonomy.

My simplified argument is as follows. Designer babies are not the threat Peter Lawler makes them out to be. Lawler’s arguments are flawed because 1) many enhancements are not zero-sum goods. If you and I are both intelligent, it is still good for me that I am intelligent; 2) no different than now, some parents will drive their children too hard, others will enable them to live good, rounded lives 3) “old fashioned” does not equal good; also, sex separated from reproduction means more pleasure, fewer unwanted babies; 4) those who seek a cure for cancer do not devalue cancer sufferers; 5) I simply don’t know how to address his religion argument, it’s so off base. In short, no, religion won’t be illegal, but you should be ashamed if you don’t teach your child about basic science; 6) the loss of autonomy requires deterministic genetic reductionism, a widely rejected theory. There it is. That’s my argument. As quick, clear, and concise as I can make it.

Bioethics and transhumanism is an amazingly huge topic. I assail Singularity zealots on the one side for dismissing the ethics and thinking that exponential acceleration will solve everything. On the other side, I rail against bioconservatives for claiming that genetic engineering is an affront to human nature. Between the Rapture of the Nerds and the Biotech Apocalypse lies the future world in which we will really be living. That is the world I think about.

The gist of this whole post is simple: genetic engineering is just another way to make children and give them the best shot at life possible. Our job as ethicists is not to panic and say how scary a new technology is, but instead rationally usher it into our midst. The most difficult and thought-provoking part of this process is just beginning with genetic engineering. Let’s not waste time arguing if children are going to suddenly become things their parents treat like show ponies simply because some genes were tweaked to boost valuable traits. Honestly, I’m always amazed at how bleak a picture of humanity bioconservatives are forced to paint when talking about how genetic engineering will change human nature.

I believe eugenics – un-coerced, readily available, and with the child’s best interests in mind – can do amazing things to improve human equality, morality, and progress. And if it turns out the genetic revolution never comes to pass, so be it. In the process of having these discussions, my hope is to discover a few principles that can guide our ethical development as a species regardless of what the future holds.

I sincerely welcome responses in the comments, for the sake of specificity and the ability to rebut directly, particularly from Minerva, Mr. Keiper and Mr. Lawler.

Follow Kyle on his blog and on twitter.

No image is appropriate for internet debates, so I just picked a great cat photo. Image via reddit user Stormhammer who certainly reposted it from elsewhere. If you know the original photog, please let me know in the comments so I can give credit where credit is due.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Politics, Transhumanism

Comments (12)

  1. I’m a practicing Christian who believes in God with my whole heart – and even I am baffled by Creationism. Why is this even allowed to be an issue??? It is so obviously … well … completely wacko. You may be judgmental – but not wanting children of today to be taught completely insane B.S. is not the reason you are judgmental – it is essential for the survival of sanity and knowledge in our culture.

  2. bob

    I’am not so smart like most of the people mentioned here,though I grew up a christian i share kyles ”more of agnostic than an aetheist” belief but really I have one question, in our pursuit to have more intelligent and healthier children are we not creating a danger, the nazi’s wanted to create a master race for what ever insidious reason but back to my question what if this new race of humans decide that the old ones were no longer useful and should be done away with?that is after all what evolution is about, out with the old and in with the new i think a more cautious approach needs to be taken on this issue, what we are discussing is the future of OUR humanity?

  3. Matt

    You seem to have no trouble stereotyping conservatives.

  4. I have no doubt that bio-engineering done right is a positive thing for humankind. I do however have serious whether our political system is able to implement this with the right ethical safeguards. The last few years I’ve seen countless where the haves manipulated the system in their favour against the have-nots. If the government of Iceland, probably the best functioning democracy in the world, cannot prevent their big banks from ruining the country, how can we be so sure that the governments of Italy, Mexico or Indonesia will implement and enforce ethical standards for bio-engineering that benefit everyone?

  5. Mike B

    The one issue I have seen raised with bioengineering that I find legitimate is the concern over it further dividing haves and have-nots. It’s probably a fair bet whatever methods are developed will cost a pretty penny, especially if they aren’t covered (one would think any sane insurance agency would prefer to pay for engineering out genetic illnesses over the usually higher cost of treating them, but…). At best, where the main benefit is curing genetic disease, that would further increase the divide in health between rich and poor, which already costs the latter several years in lifespan relative to the former. If science does somehow work out how to not just fix defective genetic traits but actually enhance them, you could wind up with a situation where wealth becomes a factor in physical/mental superiority. How bad will classism get if the rich can look at the poor and see people who are dumber/weaker/etc. than them? I suspect these concerns are gonna be far in the future given the current tech, and probably there are biological reasons why we can’t just engineer “better” humans, but it’s still a very real issue I think given the results seen already of the current differences in health care.

  6. Will B

    @Mike B: The thing is that there’s always been a physical difference between rich and poor. As far back as ancient Greece, the aristocrats could always be identified by physical beauty and the commoners by their lack thereof (not to say that this was a universal rule or that it made either one better or worse yadayadayada). Even now, it’s not too hard to see if someone’s had some aristocratic breeding at some point. Because not too long ago, eugenics was popular in the upper classes. So it wouldn’t exactly be different to now…

    And I’m not classist, this is just based on observation and knowledge.

  7. Charles

    Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

    Bioengineering doesn’t create monsters; only people can create monsters. Make the actions illegal, not the technology.

    How’s that for a conservative one-liner.

  8. Eric

    As someone who has definitely not won the genetic lottery, I can say without reservation that such knowledge has been one reason for me not wanting to procreate. People with a strong genetic lineage of debilitating and/or deadly conditions need to heavily weigh such matters.

    To me, human enhancement can go a long way in dealing with matters that can have a negative, daily effect on many lives.

  9. HerodotusMao

    I find this entire argument hilarious.

    “Oh, we don’t want to mess around with human genes…”

    Meanwhile, in both more civilized countries and less “morally conflicted” ones, research continues on.

    Chinese kids are already far smarter and work far harder than their American counterparts thanks to the steady defunding of public education. So what happens when these Chinese kids also become say, far more resistant to illness, require less sleep, and are overall ever more intellectually advanced than they are already?

    Man, America is really, really, really not going to like becoming a third world nation. Why do we always feel the need to speed up the process?

  10. HerodotusMao

    Will B says:

    “As far back as ancient Greece, the aristocrats could always be identified by physical beauty and the commoners by their lack thereof…”

    Really? What crazy history book did you learn this in? You ever heard of Death Masks? Pretty cool stuff, since they actually let us know exactly what say, the Ancient Romans actually looked like. Lets just say that being able to get the pretty girl into bed thanks to wealth and power does not make you attractive yourself. And what is true then is true today. How many lookers do we have in the US House? The US Senate? Most of these people are hideous looking, and they have millions in corporate “donation” money to spend on their appearance.

    “Even now, it’s not too hard to see if someone’s had some aristocratic breeding at some point.”

    Yeah, those are the kids that when they fall down, they never stop bleeding. Those pesky recessive traits and inbreeding…

  11. How come no one ever considers the positive effects of prohibiting genetic enhancement? People always compare a better enhanced future to the status quo, but, since genetic enhancement is currently legal, it really IS the status quo. We really should be comparing the status quo to the future we could have if we prohibited genetic enhancement. If we prohibited genetic enhancement, we could resolve the same-sex marriage debate with a Civil Union compromise based on preserving marriage’s procreation rights (that’s my goal at my site) and we could focus our resources on medicine for actual people instead of burning tons of carbon on genetic enhancement research. And the international benefits that would come from the shift in our nation’s goals would be huge, possibly ending jihad and bringing rational sanity to conflicts all over the world. And the benefits to everyone’s psyche and emotional state would be very huge also, we would all feel the respect of our equality and dignity and that would surely translate into our actions in the world, as our angst and apathy is replaced by the call of care.

  12. I will point out YET again how ridiculous fears of “Genetic Supermen” are in this day and age.

    Say you create a “Perfect Human” who is genius IQ, physically superior, and all around “better” than a modern human.

    Scary hummm?

    Now let’s look at the reality. In the 20 years it will take him to grow up, we will have perfected exoskeletons and other forms of augmentation that will eliminate his “superior physical traits”, have created BCI that will negate his “superior mental traits”, and have perfected retroactive genesplicing in adults that will negate even his “superior genes” because EVERYONE could have them.

    Now, to top this off, we will have created medical technologies that will enable humans to reshape nearly every detail of their body, meaning that even our “superman” might seek to change his own “genetic code” to upgrade it to what will be possible 20 years from now.

    Back in the 20-30’s such fears might have actually meant something. Today, they are a pathetic joke.


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