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A medical ethicist recently proposed that selecting (and possibly engineering) certain traits into our children is not just morally permissible but desirable:

Professor Julian Savulescu said that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a "moral obligation" as it makes them grow up into "ethically better children".

The expert in practical ethics said that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children as it meant they were then less likely to "harm themselves and others".

I am curious what schools of thought there are in the philosophical community (or individual viewpoints) regarding this issue.

Is any sort of interference morally problematic? (Many would think so intuitively, especially within religious communities, but intuition can be wrong.)

If selection and screening are okay, is introducing new genes okay/desirable also--assuming that we know what the impact will be--or is there a fundamental difference between selecting between possibilities that already were going to occur, and creating people with a new genetic composition that they couldn't have acquired "naturally"?

  • I´m too unexperienced on ethics to give you a full answer, but I would question the right of the parents to influence their children in such a way. Also I could image it influences the relationship between parents and children in a bad way. A child is not a barbie-puppet but a living beeing, and as that, has a right to be itself, and a right not to be genetically changed. – Lukas Sep 27 '12 at 19:02
  • @Lukas - Why is it better to be yourself as created by random crossovers in your parents' DNA than yourself as created mostly by random crossovers, but with a few things put there intentionally to help make your life easier? Also, if children have a right to be themselves and not changed by their parents, why do we let parents teach their children anything? – Rex Kerr Sep 27 '12 at 19:22
  • The crucial point now is this: What is an "easier" life, and how are you going to measure it? Followed by: Is it an improvement for life, if it is made "easier"? To answer your latter question: I think that no institution should have so much power to intervene on the parents life and the childs education because noone really knows what a good education is. So: no institution should have the power to, and there won´t be any that knows how to anyways. Besides that, i think a lot of parents are bad at educating, but how would we change that? – Lukas Sep 27 '12 at 19:42
  • @Lukas - There are genetic markers that are highly correlated with criminal behavior (and seem to have something to do with impulse control). Might be easier to control your impulses and not end up in jail--we've already decided as a society that being in jail is not an improvement (that is part of the point of it...). Anyway, if parents get to intervene when we don't know what a good X is, why not let them intervene genetically? I'm trying to get at the general principles here...so far it all looks like special cases selected to yield the "right" answer. – Rex Kerr Sep 27 '12 at 19:55
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    Why is a correlation with criminal behavior always a bad thing. Was not Galileo considered a criminal and condemned of grave suspicion of heresy? – Kenshin Sep 27 '12 at 23:12
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Let me ask you this. Do you think the Cystic Fibrosis gene should be removed from human beings? It would sound reasonable to say yes. It turns out however that the Cystic Fibrosis gene could provide protection from Typhoid Fever. The disease Sickle Cell Anemia also provides protection against Malaria.

Suppose Malaria strikes a population in which Sickle Cell Anemia has been eradicated thanks to gene manipulation. This population will then have lower survival rates than a population of people who possess Sickle Cell Anemia, and have the extra protection against Malaria.

The point is that by selecting favorable traits, our population looses its diversity. But the more diverse a population is, the more likely the population will survive unexpected environmental changes. Because we cannot predict the future, we can't know what traits may be desirable in the future, and therefore we need encourage diversity to enhance the probability of survival.

Designer babies discourages diversity, and encourages parents to choose babies which conform to the social standards of the present time period only, to the detriment of the future of mankind.

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    I think that it is easier to argue that homozygous cystic fibrosis genes should be removed from human beings. You can keep the variants; just don't make the people with two copies suffer (i.e. fix one copy). Also, given that rare alleles are often thought of as desirable (hair and eye color being the most obvious and superficial examples thereof), and given that one could introduce other novel variations, I'm not sure that the it-reduces-diversity point is valid either. I think you need a more sophisticated argument to prove your case. – Rex Kerr Sep 27 '12 at 15:46
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    Sure remove the homozygous cystic fibrosis genes. There are several heterozygous cystic fibrosis genes that aren't asymptomatic. Should these be removed? You say that some rare alleles are often thought of as desirable, so what? Many rare alleles aren't thought of as desirable. The question is, are we smart enough to know which ones will be good for us in the future? The reducing diversity point is 100% valid despite your objections to the argument's sophistication. China's one child policy is an obvious example. The ratio of males to females is too big thanks to human selection. – Kenshin Sep 27 '12 at 23:06
  • You mention that one could "introduce" novel variations? What is your basis for this? The technology proposed is to choose the best mother-father combination produced, not to alter the child's genes directly. Therefore no new variations can be introduced. Therefore in the future, it is possible that certain genes like cystic fibrosis, could become extinct. Unless there is strict monitoring of how many children MUST inherit the heterozygous gene etc to prevent this. The question arises again, are humans smart enough to know how many cystic fibrosis heterozygotes we should have – Kenshin Sep 27 '12 at 23:25
  • People with cystic fibrosis have very low reproductive fitness. Also, what evidence or argument do you have that human preferences are worse than random, and produce less diversity than standard inheritance? Also, introducing novel variations is routinely done in other organisms (e.g. mice); it's likely only a matter of time before it will be safe and practical in humans--then the question will be whether it is moral or not, and if moral, whether it is stupid or not. – Rex Kerr Sep 27 '12 at 23:43
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    You are the one that must provide evidence that human choice is better than random I'm afraid. – Kenshin Sep 27 '12 at 23:44
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Mew has given a very pragmatic answer, but doesn't raise the thorny philosophical problem. I'd like to add my two cents..

There a few problems with the genetic selection and modification of human beings. The biggest problem is the desacralizing of life. I have a small observation that I will probably develop more fully somewhere else, and that is this: With the desacralizing of life, death, sex, marriage, not only do we lose out on living meaningful lives, but we also lose out on the ability to know God, because ultimately the questions of objective meaning and purpose of life are inextricably intertwined with questions of the nature and existence of God. I think that this spiritual dulling of the senses, if I can put it that way, is already in progress across much of the "developed" world.

There are other problems too. For example, suppose we were to be able to design offspring who wouldn't suffer from any adverse health conditions. Would they be as empathetic to another person's suffering? I have to be clear, I don't want to sound glib about suffering (I myself have had more than my fair share of it). But we may have to admit that the elimination of suffering of all kinds cannot be the ultimate purpose of life, because if successful, it could change the very nature of life itself.

As for the article linked to above, again there are pragmatic reasons why it is unwise to screen embryos for potential personality flaws. But I'll just mention a more philosophical reason: Within the Christian view, an individual has free will. I have no doubt that people have different proclivities and weaknesses, but learning how to deal with these is a part of our human experience. It is what makes us unlike robots. In short, people who choose to turn their back on a religiously based arguments against these kinds of modifications merely because they are religiously based are showing a dangerous kind of cultural bias which is myopic and foolish. Humanity as we know it can morph into something less glorious in the blink of an eye.

  • There seem to be a lot of leaps where I don't follow the logic. Why is sacralizing key if you claim that objective meaning and purpose of life is what is intertwined? Also, are you claiming that people who don't care much for marriage are not living meaningful lives (especially couples who have children etc.)? Does it follow that even if eliminating all suffering reduces empathy that we shouldn't try to reduce some? Are you claiming that selecting certain embryos over others somehow strips free will from those selected embryos? – Rex Kerr Mar 1 '14 at 8:57
  • Well, let me try my best at this. The sacred parts of our human experience can often be viewed as pointers to God. As we de-sacralize parts of our experience, we lose these pointers to God, and it is God who has endowed us with objective meaning and purpose, that is external to our own creation. I'm not saying that you cannot live a meaningful life, where the meaning is of your own making, but it just wouldn't be an externally imposed meaning, and a case can be made that this objective, external meaning is more robust to the vicissitudes of life. – Joebevo Mar 1 '14 at 9:26
  • "Does it follow that even if eliminating all suffering reduces empathy that we shouldn't try to reduce some?" Sure, I'd say we should eliminate suffering where we can, without creating any ripple effects that affect the human experience. My point here was mainly to counteract this humanistic notion of a utopia where all suffering ceases. That is not our prerogative. (A lot of humanists tend to make their summum bonum the alleviation of suffering at all costs. All I'm trying to say is: Let's not forget the cost of doing that.) – Joebevo Mar 1 '14 at 9:33
  • "Are you claiming that selecting certain embryos over others somehow strips free will from those selected embryos?" My point was that genetic screening of embryos such that certain personality flaws are selected against is a bad idea because it goes against the notion of people as responsible creatures. If a person does grow up to have certain undesirable traits, then it is all the more of a victory when they do overcome it. Selecting for traits artificially might in fact deny the fully developed person all the richness of the human experience, with its messiness and all. – Joebevo Mar 1 '14 at 9:42
  • Thanks for clarifying. That makes more sense. I can't say I agree, but at least I understand the argument you're making now. (Disagreements include: God isn't the only source of external meaning; I didn't say we'd eliminate all suffering so that's a non-issue; many undesirable traits (e.g. sloth) actually rob one of the richness of human experience.) – Rex Kerr Mar 1 '14 at 10:41
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The Dao De Jing 57 (Lin Yutang translation) says:

The more prohibitions there are,
   The poorer the people become.
The more sharp weapons there are,
   The greater the chaos in the state.
The more skills of technique,
   The more cunning things are produced.
The greater the number of statutes,
   The greater the number of thieves and brigands.

Therefore the sage says:
   I do nothing and the people are reformed of themselves.
   I love quietude and the people are righteous of themselves.
   I deal in no business and the people grow rich by themselves.
   I have no desires and the people are simple
      and honest by themselves.

That's before the "magical taoism", so it may be interpreted in materialistic (scientific) terms.

Biology shows that most social species have come to ritualize violence inside the group, reducing its destructive power. We, as social animals, also have the instinct for peace naturally stronger then our instinct for war.

But most of the Western philosophy is rooted in monotheistic religion, where human beings are "evil" since Eve, and thus in need of "correction". This chapter of the Dao De Jing shows the opposite, the farther we go away from our true Nature, the poorer we become.

That's why laws in excess ruin a country, and too much "wisdom" and technology usually end up having deleterious consequences.

But massive propaganda is there to show us that the industrial world have "improved" us.

One needs to get out of the comfort of his home to see some of the last primitive people who still show our natural wisdom, health and beauty. But one needs to do this fast, because these people and their way of life are being destroyed day by day.

So, to put it shortly:

Technology used to alter Nature may easily develop against ourselves (or at least against the poor, who make up the majority).

Chapter 29 of the Dao De Jing (Giafu Feng and Jane English translation) pretty well sums it up:

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.
  • Before you wonder: I think that the downvotes are not because this is eastern philosophy (I like the passages), but because the question had asked for present views, which I read as contemporary authors and texts. Dao De Jing hardly qualifies for that. – Philip Klöcking Aug 13 '16 at 14:11
  • @PhilipKlöcking China STILL have 3 great philosophies: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. So, WHO said Taoism is "outdated"? If you need contemporary authors about Taoism, use Google. I know there are thousands of such texts. But none of them surpass the original. By the way, what helped me to understand its meaning wasn't "contemporary authors", but living unlettered Amerindian peoples. Maybe that's TOO MUCH philosophy for unprepared Western ears... – Rodrigo Aug 14 '16 at 9:08
  • Is it serious that a moderator in a Philosophy site studies THEOLOGY? I think THAT explains most of the flaws, not only on this site, but in most Western "civilization". – Rodrigo Aug 14 '16 at 9:26
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    Hey, keep cool. I haven't downvoted. I just wanted to explain why people might be alienated by an answer to a question that is asking for 'present views' that quotes texts that are hundreds of years old. I do perfectly understand that they are applicable (because of being universal) and I very much appreciate the wisdom contained in old chinese and indian texts. But in a SE, questions express a certain expectance and the answers should meet them. There are by far not enough questions even considering eastern philosophy, but if they don't, answering with it may be out of place. – Philip Klöcking Aug 14 '16 at 9:27
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    Your other answer was not deleted because I disagreed with it, but because it did not answer the question. In the future I will leave a comment to explain, sorry about that. – Keelan Aug 14 '16 at 13:25

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