The Ethics of Genetic Engineering:
Questions Concerning Future Genetic Treatment and Enhancement

Robert F. Birdsey

The field of genetic sciences is one of the fastest growing areas of study.  Presently underway is the Human Genome Project, a collective effort to locate and identify the 100,000 or so genes present in every individual human's DNA.  The Human Genome Project is being carried out by genetic laboratories in different countries, and it is predicted reach completion in 2003 (TIME, 1999, p. 46).  Many ethical questions have arisen in response to the technology that has developed recently in genetic science, as well as the capabilities that will most likely become available in the future.  The most important ethical debate is arguably that concerning the distinction between genetic therapy for purposes of medical treatment and genetic therapy for purposes of non-medical enhancement.  The subject of this essay is the debate between treatment and enhancement.

Discussion concerning the ethical issues surrounding gene therapy did not begin to develop substantially until the 1980's, and many new perspectives on the matter will no doubt be proposed in the future.  In the debate over gene therapy for medical treatment purposes and gene therapy for enhancement purposes, the majority of writers support the former but oppose the latter.  In this essay, I will outline the central arguments given in support of gene therapy as a means of medical treatment but oppose it as a means for non-medical enhancement in humans.  A section outlining the arguments that support genetic enhancement will then follow.  After a careful examination, it is evident that the arguments opposing genetic enhancement are inconclusive and unconvincing.  I will argue, however, in opposition of genetic enhancement for reasons that are not considered regularly by the non-supporters.  I contend that the debate between genetic treatment and genetic enhancement centers on issues that are only secondary; issues such as equal resource allocation, autonomy, slippery slopes, etc.  Our fundamental concern should be how genetic enhancement would affect our present beliefs about what makes our lives meaningful and fulfilling.  With this point in mind, I intend to show that genetic enhancement is an enterprise that we as a society should not begin practicing.

Present and Potential Uses of Genetic Technology

In the 5 million years of the human species' existence, our DNA has evolved less than 2%.  In the next century, however, "we will be able to alter our DNA radically, encoding our visions ans vanities while concocting new life-forms" (TIME, 1999, p. 43).  In the 1970s and 1980s, the technology was developed to allow scientists to read the sequence of bases in DNA.  As the genes in human DNA are identified and their functions are understood, we acquire knowledge of how particular genes control the expression of particular characteristics and traits in our bodies.

Once the Human Genome Project is completed and scientists know the location of every human gene in our DNA, we will be able to gradually determine the function of every gene and how it is expressed in the human body.  We have already identified the functions of various human genes, "and as scientists anticipated, this knowledge is enriching and stimulating biological research beyond the immediate goals of the Human Genome Project" (Cole, p. 60).  Knowing the location and function of particular genes allows scientists to detect genes that are abnormal or defective, and lead to  various diseases.  A few genes have already been identified as being related to genetic diseases such as Huntington's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, childhood leukemia, Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, and others (Cole, p. 60).

In addition to our ability to identify individual genes is the ability to clone individual genes and insert them into an organism's DNA.  This process, known as gene transfer or gene therapy, enables scientists to replace one gene with a new one, thereby altering the expression of the former gene.  If, for example, scientists detect a defect in a fetus' gene that will cause the fetus to acquire Hemophilia B, scientists can clone a normal version of the particular gene from another person and then insert the gene into the DNA of the fetus.  Gene transfer replaces the defective gene with a normal gene and prevent the fetus from having Hemophilia B later in life.  Although there are other methods of genetic modification, the key point is that we have to ability to alter our genetic makeup, and thereby alter the characteristics of our bodies that are genetically expressed.

Genetic technology extends beyond treatment in genes that affect our health.  We have already identified the gene that determines one's sex, and we will soon know the genes for height, hair and eye color, bone structure, etc.  It is entirely conceivable that we will be able to identify genes that determine a human being's IQ, personality type, and emotional disposition (TIME, 1999, p. 64).  It is not difficult to see how powerful this technology is.  It enables us to change ourselves drastically in accordance with our own desires.  Gene therapy can thus have two different goals.  It may be the cure or prevention of disease or it may be the enhancement of human capabilities and traits.  From this point on, I will refer to the former as genetic treatment (cure or prevention of disease), and to the latter as genetic enhancement (alteration of genes for non-medical purposes).  Treatment and enhancement can be performed in two ways: in somatic (nonreproductive) cells and in germ-line (reproductive) cells.  Although there is much debate concerning the ethics of somatic cell and germ-line cell gene therapy, this essay focuses on the debate between genetic treatment and genetic enhancement in general.

Arguments Against Enhancement

Many writers perceive an ethical distinction between genetic treatment and genetic enhancement, arguing in support of treatment and in opposition to enhancement.  People such as W. French Anderson argue that "a line can be drawn and should be drawn to use gene transfer only for the treatment of serious disease, and not for any other purpose" (Anderson, 1990, p. 21).  This section of the essay will examine the arguments for there being such a moral line.

In his essay, "Genetics and Human Maleability," W. French Anderson makes a cogent point that should be considered regularlywhen discussing the issue of gene therapy.  This outspoken critic of genetic enhancement maintains that "somatic cell gene therapy for the treatment of severe disease is considered ethical because it can be supported by the fundamental moral principle of beneficience: It would relieve human suffering....Under what circumstances would human genetic engineering not be a moral good?  In the broadest sense, when it detracts from, rather than contributes to, the dignity of man" (Anderson, 1990, p. 23).  Anderson has established what I think is an admittedly simplistic, but reasonable, criteria for determining whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.  Let us now see if his arguments against enhancement meet the challenge.

For Anderson, "correction of a genetic defect that causes serious illness is one thing, but to try to alter a characteristic such as size (by administration of a growth hormone gene to a normal child, for example) is quite another" (1992, p. 812).  Anderson's first comprehensive arguments for why treatment and enhancement are significantly different, and why the former is acceptable while the latter is unacceptable, are contained in the essay "Human Gene Therapy: Why Draw a Line?" (1989).  Beginning with the question of why there is uneasiness with gene therapy among so many individuals, Anderson thinks there is good reason for uneasiness to exist because of how powerful the scope of genetic technology is.  "We are developing the capability to change who and what we are", but it is difficult, if not impossible to say or really understand what makes up our fundamental human nature - our humanness (1989, p. 682).  We fear the possibility of our humanness being tampered with.  Although we already influence our genes and change our bodies (by living in a polluted area or by receiving plastic surgery, for example), the effects on the gene pool are unintended.  Gene therapy, on the other hand, alters the human genome intentionally.  Since we are now able to alter our genes even though we have an incomplete understanding of how our individual characteristics are derived from these molecules, it is very important to discuss how we can determine ways to "derive the benefits made possible by gene transfer technology while protecting ourselves from its potential risks" (1989, p. 683).

Anderson thinks an important step in being able to derive the benefits while avoiding the risks is to draw a line between certain types of gene therapy.  To draw such a line, we are required to examine two aspects: (1) What is or soon will be feasible? What are the benefits and risks?; (2) What are the ethical implications for society with each new step? What fundamental moral principles should guide our considerations? And given these moral principles, we ask can and should lines be drawn? If so, where and how?

After giving an account of what genetic technology is capable of (including a general discussion of somatic cell genetic treatment and genetic enhancement), Anderson goes on to answer the questions posed in the second consideration listed above.  It is in this discussion on the ethical implications of gene therapy that Anderson argues for a line that can and should be drawn.  He draws upon the guidlines from the Belmont Report (National Commission, 1978) to illustrate that it is possible "to delineate ethical from unethical clinical research and to distinguish clinical research from clinical practice" (1989, 685).  After showing that lines can be drawn, he proceeds to argue that a line should be drawn between genetic treatment and enhancement.  Anderson contends that genetic enhancement "would threaten important human values in two ways: first, it could be medically hazardous, i.e., the risk could exceed the potential benefits and could therefore cause harm, and second, it would be morally precarious, i.e., it would require moral decisions that our society is not now prepared to make and which could lead to an increase in inequality and an increase in discriminatory practices" (1989, p. 686).

Anderson thinks the fact that we possess only a very limited understanding of how the molecular structure of our genes control the way our individual characteristics and traits are expressed means there are more risks involved in genetic enhancement than in genetic treatment.  In genetic treatment, we alter one or more genes that we identify as being abnormal and defective.  We 'fix' the problem, make an abnormal gene normal.  In genetic enhancement, however, we alter a gene that is already normal.  In the case of enhancement, it is not unreasonable to assume that there will be more potential side effects that are unpredictable given our largely incomplete understanding of gene function.  What if, for instance, there is an adverse effect such as the loss of one's conception of good and evil that is caused by an alteration of the person's height-determining genes?

Anderson illustrates this point by comparing the human genome to the electronic insides of a TV, something most of us know very little about.  If the TV stopped working and after looking inside we noticed a broken wire, it would not be unreasonable to think that we could fix the TV by replacing the wire.  But if our TV did not have as sharp a picture as our neighbor's, and we noticed that our neighbor's TV had an extra part inside, it is highly unlikely that our TV would be improved by adding an extra part like our neighbor's.  "At least we could take the part back out if it did not help.  But once a gene has been inserted into a person's cells, it is not possible to take it back out" (1989, p. 686).

In addition to the argument concerning medical risks, Anderson claims that genetic enhancement would be morally precarious.  Even if we could eliminate any and all medical risks involved in genetic enhancement, there would still be reasons for objecting to the procedure.  Through a number of hypothetical scenarios, Anderson raises various questions that would arrise if genetic enhancement were practiced.  These questions allude to what Anderson sees as three problems with the enterprise of genetic enhancement.  We would not be able to 1) determine what genes should be provided; 2) determine who should receive a gene; and 3) ensure the prevention of discrimination against individuals who do or do not receive a gene (1989, p. 687).  It is these three considerations that lead Anderson to endorse drawing a line between genetic treatment only for serious diseases and any lesser form of genetic treatment or genetic enhancement.

With respect to the first problem, Anderson asserts that our different notions of what a minor genetic disease is and what a normal variation is would make it hard to determine what gene should be provided in enhancement.  "Does the absence of a growth hormone that results in a growth limitation to two feet in height represent a genetic disease?  What about a limitation to a height of four feet, to five feet?" (1989, p. 688).  The point behind these questions is that it is impossible, at least for now, to reach a consensus on where to draw the line in cases of minor disease and genetic variation.  We can, however, distinguish extreme cases that produce suffering and death from cases like the ones above.

The second problem that Anderson suggests concerns how we would determine who should receive a gene.  He asserts that it would be very difficult to make such decisions for the same reasons used in the first problem.  The problem of determining who should receive enhancement genes would not exist if the line that Anderson proposes were established.  "If the position is established that only patients suffering from serious diseases are candidated, then the issues are no different from any other medical decision" (1989, p. 688).  With an enhancement gene being offered (such as one that produces increased memory capacity), it will be impossible to determine with confidence the level of intelegence one must have to be a candidate for such a gene.  We could not be sure that the decisions being made in such a scenario would be always equitable.

Anderson's final point refers to questions of discrimination.  If enhancement were practiced, many different forms of discrimination could exist.  If there are limited resources, would only the wealthy who can afford enhancment therapy have the opportunity to procure it?  Those who do or do not receive enhancement genes could be discriminated upon by others.  Would people with genetic variations be pressured to receive therapy?  Insurance might be withheld from them unless they did so.  Anderson uses these questions to bring up the issues of eugenics and slippery slopes.  Once small "improvements" are performed, could we stop ourselves from going on to larger ones that drastically alter the human species in a way we are not prepared for?  "It would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine where to draw a line once enhancement engineering had begun" (1989, p. 689).

Before moving on to the arguments in favor of enhancement, it is important to note that Dr. Anderson is only one of many writers who oppose genetic enhancement.  Many others, such as John C. Fletcher and Jeremy Rifkin, have made significant contributions to this side of the debate.  It must be noted, furthermore, that there are various arguments other than Anderson's which oppose enhancement, i.e. that we would be playing God, or that the practice is not natural.  I have chosen to focus on Anderson, however, because he is arguably the most well known participant in the present debate, and because his arguments reflect the views taken by many other writers who oppose genetic enhancement.  The additional arguments against enhancement that Anderson does not discuss will be outlined in the following section.

Arguments For Enhancement

Tristram H. Engelhardt is one of the most effective supporters of genetic enhancement.  In his two essays, "Persons and Humans: Refashioning Ourselves in a Better Immage" (1984), and "Human Nature Technologically Revisited" (1990), he offers replies to the types of objections that Anderson makes against enhancement.  He also examines arguments that are based to a greater extent on ethical considerations.  Engelhardt uses a two-part strategy.  First, he reviews the popular arguments against enhancement and offers an opposing response for each.  He then gives an argument based on his conception of what human nature is in order to assert that genetic enhancement is an enterprise that complements human nature and that it should be desired.  For Engelhardt, genetic enhancement should be practiced with great prudence and precaution.  He takes a stance based on the maxim of festina lente, to make haste slowly.

In PH, Engelhardt begins by asking what could be wrong with genetic enhancement, and examining a number of arguments writers such as Anderson have made to answer this question.  While some of the essay is oriented toward the issue of collective genetic engineering, i.e. germ-line cell therapy, the discussion is applicable to the issue of treatment versus enhancement.

The first claim is that it is difficult to make confident distinctions between treatment of genetic diseases and enhancement of genetic expressions.  Unlike Anderson, who believes this factor means we ought to draw a line by which genetic treatment only for serious diseases is acceptable, Engelhardt sees the difficulty to mean something else.  "The prospect of altering the genetic endowment to improve the range of human capacities blends indiscernibly with medicine's interest in ameliorating disabilities" (PH, p. 282).  The problem of distinguishing between treatment and enhancement implies that the fundamental principles in each are not inherently different.  Consider curing forms of mental retardation as opposed to augmenting average human intelligence.  Human intelligence is being enhanced in both cases.  Why should it be permissible to expand the mental capacity of one type of person, but not another?  We cannot feasibly discern a certain level of intelligence that tells us which individuals should and should not be able to receive gene therapy, but it does not follow that we should prohibit the use of gene therapy to increase intelligence for everybody.  It is therefore unreasonable to support genetic treatment to increase the intelligence in individuals with mental retardation while opposing the enhancement of intelligence in individuals without this condition.

Another concern with gene therapy in general, and genetic enhancement in particular, is that it results in a break from the natural process of evolution that has led to the present condition of the human species.  To prove that gene alteration is inappropriate in this light, one must show that evolution possesses some sort of natural 'wisdom' that operates with our interests in mind.  Although evolution has allowed for the human species to be successful up to this point, "it is a slow process which has done little to adapt us to industrial, urban environments" (PH, p. 283).  The natural evolution of the human species may very well lead us to endangerment in the future just as it has led us to success thus far.  The point is that evolution is a random process that can produce outcomes that disagree with our moral sensibilities.  It may be necessary to intentionally alter our genes in order to survive in a rapidly changing environment.  Genetic enhancement could improve our evolution if, for instance, we could alter our genes to become better adapted to asbestos or benzine (PH, p. 285).

The next objection is related to the evolution debate: the claim that genetic enhancement 'is just not natural.'  Engelhardt replies that for such an argument to be successful, one must be able to prove one of two things.  "One would need an argument to establish either the moral importance of the design that led to our present state of affairs, or that there are overriding advantages to the current result of evolution" (PH, p. 285).  Both of these claims would be hard to establish.  The former argument rests upon a set of religious or metaphysical assumptions.  Saying "He or Her made us how we are" is not, for many people, an acceptable reason to argue against enhancement.  Doing so "places the debate within restricted communities" that endorse particular religious values (PH, 285).  It is impossible to show in any sort of empirical sense that the present state of the human genome is sacrosanct.   Some support the claim that our present state of affairs has overriding advantages by arguing that at least we know the pros and cons of our current condition, whereas we do not know the potential cons that may result from genetic enhancement.  This concern, however, only implies that we act prudently in genetic enhancement; it does not establish any particular moral standing for our current condition.

Another concern suggests we should consider the possibility that a widespread practice of genetic enhancement could lead to a loss of human genetic diversity.  If a single uniform view of the ideally adapted person, enhancement could lead to uniformity in our species which would be boring and, more importantly, be dangerous.  The danger lies in that we might become too narrowly adapted to a particular ecological niche.  A drastic change in the environment could have devastating effects on us.  A response to this concern is that we must recognize that our ability to alter our genes allows us to become more as well as less diverse depending on what the outside circumstances call for.  It is important that we avoid uniformity on a large scale, but this consideration only lends support to prudent progression of enhancement technology, not prohibition.

The last objection maintains that enhancement allows people to become engaged in an immoral pursuit of a super race.  Engelhardt denies that such a pursuit is inherently immoral, saying that it is not unacceptable as long as it does not affect the interests or infringe upon the rights of those who choose not to participate in such an endeavor.  If these conditions are satisfied, there is no reason for those opposed to enhancement to be able to call for its prohibition.  The right of an individual to resist and object to enhancement complements the right of another individual to participate in and endorse enhancement.  Engelhardt draws upon the Amish community as an illustration.  Are the rights to pass ethical judgements on the use of technology "limited to÷ groups such as the Amish, who live their lives with minimum interference, isolated as far as possible from those who have embraced wholeheartedly modern industrialized Western society?" (PH, 289).  The example illustrates the point that one individual person or community that objects to certain practices does not possess the right to prohibit others from implementing such practices as long as nobody's rights are infringed upon.  Once again, we have reason to proceed with prudence so as to avoid injustice, but we do not have reason to consider enhancement immoral in itself.

After evaluating these arguments against enhancement, Engelhardt offers some positive arguments for why we ought to practice enhancement therapy with caution.  The benefits of enhancement capabilities can remind us of "the wide range of human excellence and the even wider range of possibilities for persons" (PH, 290).  It allows us to make ourselves better in many ways that everyone would agree with even if some individuals still do not wish to receive enhancement themselves.  Nobody denies that it is better to be intelligent rather than unintelligent, or be resistant to deadly toxins rather than vulnerable to them.  Enhancement does not seem to have the potential of producing catastrophic results that cannot be prevented as long as we are careful and prudent.  Furthermore, we have no reason to view enhancement as being morally wrong in itself.  We are left with no moral reason to object to the practice of enhancement as long as it is done with prudence so as to avoid risks.

Engelhardt develops this line of reasoning by focusing on a distinction between being a person and being a human.  Being a human implies only a biological status.  Being a person, however, implies a moral and rational status.  In being a person, we have values that have nothing to do with our human bodies.  One considers Yoda, from the movie "The Empire Strikes Back," to be a good person even though he is not a human, whereas Jabba the Hut is an evil person.  In being a person, we possess values such as kindness and the desire to be good.  We have reason, therefore, to be inclined towards changing our bodies and our human nature in order to better promote our values as persons.  "Humans, since they are persons, need not remain human" (PH, 291).  The statement may sound extreme, but it raises an important consideration.  The fact that we are rational and self-reflective (persons) means we objectify our bodies and characters.  We bring shortcomings into question, which makes us potential recreators of ourselves.  We have been intentionally changing ourselves in many ways for thousands of years in the pursuit of recreating ourselves.  Genetic enhancement allows us to do this more extensively.

A New Focus

With a few exceptions, I consider Engelhardt's account of the issues surrounding genetic enhancement very convincing and certainly more persuasive than Anderson's.  The arguments Anderson offers raise some extremely important considerations, but they do not show genetic enhancement to be inherently immoral in any way.  The points that Anderson makes can be seen as actually lending credit to Engelhardt's suggestion of proceeding with prudence.  All Anderson does is propose a set of criteria and questions that must be satisfied and answered before we can justifiably begin to practice genetic enhancement.  Assuming that we can gain enough understanding of genetics to avoid serious medical risks, decide what genes would be appropriate to offer, ensure equal resource allocation, and ensure that there will be no discrimination, Anderson is left without grounds by which to oppose genetic enhancement.  In my mind, these assumptions are perfectly feasible.

Although I think Engelhardt's arguments are well presented and convincing, he fails to examine a point of consideration that presents a substantial challenge to an argument that supports the practice of all forms of genetic enhancement.  I concede that genetic enhancement is not inherently immoral and that it even complements human nature's natural tendency towards re-creation, but Engelhardt does not prove that all forms of genetic enhancement will improve the value and meaning of our lives even when it meets the conditions that Anderson sets.  Both Anderson and Engelhardt fail to address this point in depth.  They never consider the question of how certain forms of genetic enhancement will affect the value and meaning of our lives.  If we take Engelhardt's advice of prudently supervising the practice of genetic enhancement, it becomes evident that the practice of certain enhancements would require us to set goals of perfection that could never be achieved.  What I mean to say is that by engaging ourselves in such endeavors, we might base our judgement of what makes life meaningful on values that are unattainable.  These would be fruitless pursuits because it would be impossible to achieve their goals, and therefore impossible to achieve what would be considered a meaningful and fulfilling life.

The rest of this essay will show that the practice of any genetic enhancement therapy, with the exception of types whose goal is the prevention of conditions that greatly inhibit the value of an individual's life, endangers our ability to develop self-acceptance and self-understanding.  There are two closely related lines of reasoning that I use to support the claim: (1)that enhancement not designed for purposes of prevention makes us inclined to place too much importance in attaining unattainable perfection; (2)that such drastic changes in such small periods of time will inhibit our personal development as persons.  Both points show there to be a risk that enhancement, with the one type of exception mentioned above, will lead to a loss of self-acceptance and self-understanding.

To clarify what I mean by certain forms of genetic enhancement that inevitably set unachievable goals of perfection, I turn once again to the example of increasing mental capacity discussed by Engelhardt.  Although there is no moral difference between altering genes to increase intelligence in a mentally retarded individual and in an individual with average intelligence, the reasons for doing so are different.  In the first case, gene therapy is administered for the purpose of correcting an undesirable condition that inhibits one's ability to achieve a meaningful life.  In the second case, gene therapy is administered for the purpose of making the individual smarter than normal.  The individuals in both cases are being made smarter, but the precedent being set in the first case is based on beneficence while the precedent being set in the second case is based on fulfilling the desire to acquire higher than normal intelligence.  This makes an important difference between genetic treatment and genetic enhancement.  Genetic treatment is designed to correct, whereas genetic enhancement is designed to perfect.

In his essay, "Persons and Humans: Refashioning Ourselves in a Better Image and Likeness," Engelhardt acknowledges the notion of pursuing perfection and the ideal person being involved in genetic enhancement.  He does not claim that there can ever be "a single coherent understanding of the ideal man or woman," but he does endorse the "presumption that there are a number of alternative construals of moral and aesthetic excellence" (PH, 288).  "We must create artfully as the gods and goddesses, recognizing the range of possibilities for excellence and the need for as much reflection and as thorough knowledge as possible." (PH, 289).  Many people might agree with Engelhardt that increased intelligence is a step toward human excellence.  It is more desirable to be smart than to be stupid.  The higher one's intelligence is the better.  This principle, however, presents a problem if the genetic enhancement of intelligence is put into practice.  How can we ever know where to set the limit that marks adequate intelligence?  No matter how high our intelligence levels become, there will always be room for improvement.  The problem is not so much the fact that we cannot set a limit, but rather that when there is no limit (or no way for setting one), it becomes difficult to find satisfaction with one's own level of intelligence because it can always be better.  It can always be seen as deficient.  By focusing on a personal trait or capability that can be seen as perpetually imperfect, one runs the risk of being unable to find satisfaction with oneself, therefore impeding his or her self-acceptance.

To better understand the problem that arises out of these circumstances, we may draw upon the views held by Daniel Callahan with regard to health care for the elderly and medical technology in general.  In What Kind of Life (1990), he writes of the danger in how we always perceive health care as being inadequate and how it is engaged in the never-ending pursuit of improved capabilities.  In Callahan's opinion, this attitude reflects a deeper attitude concerning how we think about our lives.  He objects to the way in which modern medicine goes to very extreme lengths to prevent aging and to prolong life to the greatest extent possible.  He believes "that the problem lies in our success rather than in our failure, our goals rather than our means, our ideals rather than our defects" (WKL, 11).

In another essay, "Aging and the Life Cycle: A Moral Norm?" (1995), Callahan offers a simplified explanation of what this problem really is.  He thinks that perpetually trying to improve medicine to prevent aging and prolong life stems from and results in an unhealthy attitude toward dying, which can lead to an unhealthy attitude while living.  Focusing so much on resisting death increases the distress and fear that comes with the thought of dying.  The more medicine fights against aging for purposes of prolonging life, the more unwilling and apprehensive people become in coming to terms with dying.  It becomes harder to accept the fact that dying is not only inevitable, but natural.  The net affect of all this is that people's misplaced attitudes toward death inhibit them from concentrating on the values that make life fulfilling and meaningful.  It is natural to have a fear of dying, but when death is seen as something that must be resisted at all cost, there is a negative affect on the quality of one's life.  Our understanding of the value of living a full life to its natural end is diminished.

The point of discussing Callahan's work is to show that human limitations and our wish to resolve them are a fact of life.  It is perfectly acceptable to take actions that do resolve some limitations, but there are other limitations that will always exist no matter what we do.  It is impossible to escape death, so it is fruitless to devote large amounts of time and energy in trying to do so.  The situation would be very similar if genetic enhancement of intelligence were brought into practice.  We all agree that the smarter we are, the better.  There is no limit, however, at which one's intelligence could be complete.  We could increase one's mental capacity by twice its original amount, but what reason would there be not to double his or her mental capacity again, and again, ÷? Since it is impossible to attain perfect intelligence, genetic enhancement in this case leads to an infinite regress.  There would be no adequate stopping point, and there is a risk that the result would be that we live our lives focusing too much on our flaws and limitations.  There is reason to believe that enhancement could inhibit our ability to achieve self-acceptance, which has a diminishing affect on the quality of life.

There are some undesirable limitations that are irresolvable facts of life, and to depend on the belief that technology can conquer this fact of life is detrimental to the development of our own self-acceptance.  Self-acceptance and self-understanding are related very closely; failure to attain the former will indubitably inhibit one's ability to attain the latter.  I contend, however, that there is a further consideration that gives us reason to suspect that genetic enhancement is detremental to the development of one's self-understanding.  The following paragraphs offer my interpretation of how the process of self-understanding takes place.

I do not object to an individual pursuit of perfection.  I consider it very important that we as individuals strive to achieve our ideals even when some of those ideals cannot be completely accomplished.  When we as a society pursue perfection through technology, however, we endanger our own personal development because we depend on science or medicine to work to achieve our ideals for us.  Activities such as exercising, studying to learn, maintaining healthy habits, and the like are good ways to pursue perfection.  These sorts of natural pursuits are superior to those of genetic enhancement because they occur in an ordered sequence by which we are able to mold ourselves gradually.  I emphasize the word 'gradually' because self-understanding is gained over an extended period of time.  Through exercising, reading, eating well, etc., we develop as our own persons, and this allows us to better understand and accept our natural condition and limitations.  As I learn through reading and studying, I am able to form my own personal opinions and beliefs at a gradual pace.  As I exercise daily, I am able to become aware of my body's condition and abilities, which allows me to realize which activities may bring me pleasures and which activities may cause me to injure myself.

By learning and developing good health at a gradual and natural pace, I become more aware of who I am and what I want to be.  The gradual process allows me to control the way I develop, which imparts greater self-understanding.  Genetic enhancement for purposes of perfection breaks this natural progression.  Imagine a twenty year old individual who has developed his or her own beliefs, opinions, and characteristics naturally, i.e., without any intentional genetic alteration.  If s/he then  receives genetic enhancement that increases his or her mental capacity by twice the original level, there will no doubt be a very significant effect on that individual's personal development.  Such a drastic change would mark a break in the natural progression of the individual's self-understanding.  S/he may have held certain religious beliefs that were very important and had played a large role in how s/he developed as a person before receiving enhancement therapy.  The individual may find reason to abandon those beliefs within a week after having his or her intelligence level doubled.  The important point is that enhancement can easily cause an individual to form entirely new sets of beliefs, habits, attitudes, etc. multiple times throughout life and over very short intervals.

The account of limitations and of developing self-acceptance and self-understanding, if correct, would justify the creation of the following guideline for determining which forms of genetic enhancement are beneficial and should be supported and which forms are detrimental and should be opposed: forms of genetic enhancement that are based on goals of prevention are acceptable in practice; forms of genetic enhancement that are based on goals of perfection are unacceptable in practice.  This distinction is very general, but it can be applied in every foreseeable case.  Genetic enhancement is acceptable in cases such as:

  • improving one's immune system to prevent disease and infection
  • increasing one's resistance to dangerous chemicals and toxins
  • altering one's genes so as to prevent the development of destructive psychological conditions

Genetic enhancement is unacceptable in cases such as:

  • increasing the intelligence of a person without a serious mental deficiency
  • determining a certain eye color
  • determining a certain height for somebody whose natural height will not or does not present a serious handicap
  • producing a certain emotional disposition in a person without a serious emotional problem

There might not be an inherent moral difference between genetically treating a mentally retarded individual and genetically enhancing the intelligence of an individual without this condition, but differences in the goals of such interventions and the resulting effects in each case lend support to the adoption of the guideline above.

I would expect Engelhardt to object by saying that I am simply incorrect in claiming that all forms of genetic enhancement based on goals of perfection will decrease one's ability to lead a fulfilling life.  It might be argued that I am wrong in denying that perfection can be attained through certain types of enhancement.  If somebody wants to alter his or her genes in order to change eye color from blue to a certain shade of green, it is perfectly conceivable that enhancement technology can make the change meet that person's desires in every aspect.  As far as the individual is concerned, the new eye color is absolutely perfect.  Another ground on which Engelhardt might counter my objection would claim that there is no concrete reason to assume that enhancement of one's intelligence, for instance, would actually have a negative affect on the value of an individual's life.  In fact, I could easily have a better chance of leading a fulfilling life if my intelligence were doubled, even while understanding that it could never be completely perfect.

These are two admittedly strong points of objection, but there is a reply for each.  In the case of a person considering his or her eye color to be perfect after receiving genetic enhancement, we must note this type of perfection is only subjective.  The individual is seeking the perfect eye color, and may even think s/he got it, but the fact is that there is no such thing as perfection that can be objectively identified as such.  The person may be happy about the altered eye color nevertheless, but that only makes me suspect that he or she is ascribing value to elements in life that are not concerned with what makes a life truly fulfilling.

As for the claim that it is possible to receive enhancement therapy to increase intelligence and be able to have a fulfilling life even with the understanding that our knowledge can never be perfect, I will concede this point when viewed on an individual basis.  In reality, however, we cannot assume that only select individuals who are able to understand the circumstances and limitations involved will be the ones who receive the enhancement therapy.  The principle of equal opportunity would have to be maintained because of the power of this technology, and anyone who desired intelligence enhancement would be able to receive it.  It is important to consider the effects genetic enhancement may have on us as a society as well as on us as individuals.  While there may be some individuals who would avoid the negative effects caused by an acute disruption in the natural development of self-understanding and self-acceptance, these cases would exist only by random chance and good fortune.  Support for this claim lies in the fact that we cannot predict how a drastic change such as one's intelligence level being doubled will affect us.  We cannot foresee all the ways in which we will be different from before.  We would lose control over our personal development.  As a society, it would be unwise to practice such forms of genetic enhancement because it is likely that many recipients will be affected adversely, even if some are not.

It is reasonable, therefore, to reject genetic enhancement for any purpose other than the prevention of serious life-inhibiting defects.  In cases where enhancement is not designed for preventive reasons, we would be interfering with the gradual process of our own personal development.  Our conceptions of who we are and who we want to be would run the high risk of being changed drastically and in very short periods of time.  The artificial interference with our  natural and formative development as persons endangers what we conceive as the ideals to be pursued, and such a loss of direction can very likely result in our confusing the sorts of values that we, as individuals, should concentrate on to make our lives meaningful and fulfilling.  Anderson is correct in drawing a line that opposes genetic enhancement except certain types that aid in the prevention of human conditions that seriously impede the pursuit of a fulfilling life, but he takes that view for the wrong reasons.  As a society, we must realize that the importance of understanding ourselves as individuals and the danger of having that understanding confused  greatly outweighs the importance of our being able to enjoy a different eye color.  I would like to double the amount of intelligence that I have now, but only when it is done through my own efforts.  That way, I can better understand what type of person I am and what type of person I want to be.  That sort of personal knowledge is essential to a meaningful life because it allows us not only to know who we are and how we live, but why we are a certain way and why we live a certain way.  Let us not change our genes to enhance ourselves overnight, and in the course of doing so, lose control over how we understand ourselves.

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Last Updated: Monday, February 27, 2006 10:16 AM