Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Emerita Steinbock on "Designer Babies"

334 days until the start of class.

I tried to get a posting on self-help philosophy in yesterday, but I failed to finish it.

Not enough time.

I will likely post it later today.

One of the reasons I failed is because I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder to attend another lecture. Dr. Emerita Steinbock wrote on "designer (genetically enhanced) babies."

She began with some technical accounts that suggested that, with a few exceptions, genetic enhancement would be hard to come by. Genes do not have just one effect - they effect many different body functions. Altering a gene to bring an enchancement to one function may have detrimental effects somewhere else.

Similarly, few traits are controlled by just one gene. One may seek an enhancement by modifying Gene A, only to discover that Gene B has reversed the effect.

We can add to this the environmental and social effects on genes. Chemicals - from hormones to environmental toxins - can alter the way a particular gene expresses itself. Furthermore, social and cultural factors may have an influence. A child given the height and coordination to play basketball may discover that she enjoys philosophy instead.

There are some things that parents can select for - such as the sex of a child. And we do know of some genetic determinants of disease, such as Downs' Syndrome. In these areas, early tests allow parents to determine if the child has traits that the parent or parents value. We can expect that our ability to predict the effects of genetic manipulation will increase - though the above complications suggest that this will be slowly with great difficulty and potential for unforeseen consequences.

There is also the question of what counts as an enhancement. Steinbock brought up the fact that there are genetic factors that dispose certain people to extreme shyness. She spoke of this as a defect - something that a parent may wish to prevent passing on to future generations. As somebody who is extremely shy, I resent that description. Yes, being extremely shy has certain drawbacks (e.g., desirism would probably be the leading moral theory if I had a disposition to actually sell it and promote it), but, I believe, it also makes me sensitive to certain facts about the world that a less shy - and, in some areas, less observant - person would be. This speaks to the difficulty, in some cases, to even knowing whether a change actually counts as an enhancement.

Still, Steinbock thought it would be useful to examine the moral arguments concerning genetic enhancement.

She seemed to think that there were no good arguments against it. For example, the argument that it somehow violates the authonomy of the child can be set aside because being genetically entineered or having random genetic traits has no impact on a child's autonomy. It is not as if the parents are overriding the child's decision regarding its genes - the child lacks the capacity to make any decision.

On the matter of consent, the fact that a child lacks a vote in its genetic makeup also fails to provide an objection to genetic enhancement. Because the child lacks a voice, it is the duty of the parents to do that which is in the interests of the child. This actually provides an argument in favor of enhancement rather than against it. If there were a genetic enhancement that would give a child immunity from a particular disease (e.g., malaria), would that be any different than giving the child an immunization shot as protection against polio?

There was one objection brought up by a member of the audience that I had a particular interest in - and that became the subject of an email that I sent to Dr. Steinbock after the event. Writing this email was another reason I was unable to finish the posting on self-help philosophy yesterday.

As I understood the argument - and attempting to put it in the best light I can think of - it asked us to consider the psychological harm that may be done to the person who discovers that she is not a "natural" child but, instead, a genetically enhanced child.

Dr. Steinbock's answer to this objection was that there is no good reason to hate oneself for being a genetically enhanced child. The child who discovers this fact about herself, according to Steinbock, should just "get over it".

At this point I attempted to put the argument in a stronger light - as well as suggest an objection against even this stronger version of the argument - by pointing out that these types of arguments have been used in the past. People, trying to present their racism as altruistic, have argued against interracial marriage in virtue of the psychological harm that the child would suffer as a result of being a "mixed race" child. Similarly, people have used "psychological harm" as a reason to oppose allowing same-sex couples to raise (or to adopt) children.

I was attempting to imply that we can imagine a case in which a culture adopted the attitude that designer babies, though perhaps mentally or physically superior to most "natural" children, were still considered to have less intrinsic worth - as being less "human" in the moral sense. We could imagine "designer baby" becoming a cultural slur - an insult hurled with venom aimed at communicating that the genetically enhanced child was, by that very fact, worthy of contempt. In this way, a genetically enhanced child can come to suffer abuse and psychological harm.

After all, there are a lot of people who view "natural" as intrinsically more valuable than "artificial", and humans are disposed to attack and belittle minorities, as well as have an incentive to put down in other ways those who they may have to compete with for jobs and public acclaim.

Steinbock responded to these points by saying that research shows that there was no psychological harm that resulted from being a mixed-race child or being raised by same-sex parents. This implies that we can expect no similar harm to come from being the a "designer baby".

That may well be true (I later told her in an email), but it does not actually address the argument in its strongest form. What if there was psychological harm? Would preventing this harm count as a good reason to prevent an activity? Should the possibility that genetically enhanced children are the subject of ridicule and abuse in virtue of that fact could as a reason to condemn the parents who would bring such a child into the world or raise the child in such a way?

My argument is that, even if there is real psychological harm, the fault lies with the abusers, not with the parents of that child. The cultural or social denigration of mixed-race children would not count as a reason to condemn the mixed-race parents, it counts as a reason to condemn those who express bigotry towards - who, in a very real sense, abuse - the mixed race child in virtue of its being mixed-race. Similarly, if children were being harmed as a result of social ridicule for "having two mothers" or "having two fathers", the fault rests not with the mothers or fathers, but with the society that allows and inflicts that abuse.

Along these same lines, any abuse that a "designer baby" may suffer as a result of being targeted as something lacking the intrinsic worth of a "natural" human would be the fault of those who would have and express bigotry against such a child. It should not count as a reason to condemn the parents of a child.

I did not express in my email an objection to this argument that has always concerned me. Let us say that I knew that the man living up the street had a disposition to murder women. When my sister comes to visit, I send her up to the neighbor's house to borrow a tool, expecting that he she would be murdered. I can make the same argument that the fault rests with the neighbor who did the murder, and the decision to send my sister to get the tool is and remains a totally blameless activity. Yet, this seems not to be the case. Similarly, in each of the three cases above, we can, perhaps, hold out some measure of condemnation against the mixed-race or same sex couple bringing a child into the world where she will suffer abuse at the hands of bigots. We can extend this moral judgment to the couple bringing a "designer baby" into a world where people would condemn and denigrate that person.

An important difference between these two types of cases is that there are many and strong reasons for society to abolish this prejudice against mix-race children or children raised by same-sex couples. Those same kinds of reasons also apply to "designer babies". There is no similar argument to be made for tolerating murderers. In order to promote tolerance where intolerance is unjustified, we need to condemn the intellerant - and deny them a "heckler's veto" over that which they do not tolerate. This argues for giving a pass to the parents being discussed in this posting, but not to the man who sends his sister to barrow a tool from the murderer.

Well, now that this is behind me, I can get back to that posting on self-help philosophy. It is nearly done, and I anticipate no other interruptions - except work, exercise, family time, and some social obligations.



Alonzo Fyfe said...

Dr. Steinbock answered my email:

"Thank you for your comments. I agree with everything you say."

Unknown said...

1-outta-1 croaks, pal, and while our bodies rot six-feet-under, our indelible soul goes to Seventh-Heaven to await their Divine Judgement.

Think about that while you peruse our blogs. May I expect you Upstairs... or shall you go downtown with Allah the ones who dont wanna gitta OFFA d'whorizontal like Jimmy Hoffa?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You only have one life. The time spent between birth and death is the only time you have. It is sad to have wasted that one and only opportunity living a life of self-deception - living a fantasy. My life will be spent living in and enjoying the real world, living a real life.