Taking Sides on Genetic Modification


Dov FoxFollow

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Should government fund safe human enhancements for the hereditary contribution to good looks or athletic prowess or IQ? Is there reason to restrict genetic interventions that would create chickens without the nesting instincts that agitate normal chickens confined to life in a battery cage? Or cows with stunted emotions that would feel less fear as they were led off to slaughter? Or pigs with no legs, better suited to a sedentary existence as bacon-to-be? Some philosophers argue that political decisions about such practices, to be legitimate, must be made without reference to reasons that arise from within controversial worldviews. They believe that society is arranged best when governed by principles that leave citizens free to pursue their own views about what gives life value. So the reasons that public officials give to justify state action must not privilege some moral or religious beliefs over others.

This is a mistake, for two reasons. First, it is conceptually incoherent for the state to stay neutral toward genetic engineering because any strategy that legislators might choose depends for its plausibility on an answer to the underlying normative questions these practices presuppose. Second, the bracketing of formative moral commitments would unduly diminish the character of public deliberation about these questions. What we should do about offspring enhancement depends on why the natural lottery matters to us. And whether we should re-fashion animals to suit our uses for them depends on whether “animal nature” is worth preserving. But these are precisely the sort of controversial moral questions that a neutral state excludes as legitimate grounds for political debate and policy decisions. It might be replied that it is unrealistic to expect citizens in a diverse society to reach agreement on normative issues as contentious as the value of animal nature or the qualities of character worth promoting in a modern democracy.

The truth in this reply is that there is no assurance that agreement will follow from public discourse about the moral status of genetic engineering of humans and animals. Nor might such discourse even lead people to have any greater understanding or respect for those views with which they disagree. But people who hold conflicting values can engage in rational moral dialogue about matters of public policy. And it is possible for people who disagree about controversial technological advances to persuade one another, at least for a time, that some moral views about, for example, genetic engineering, are more reasonable than other views. The price of excluding substantive moral arguments from political debate should not be overlooked. The risk of seeking neutral justification for policy decisions about genetic engineering is that future generations and our own will be subject to a course of action that we cannot plausibly endorse or coherently defend.

Publication Info

1 AM. J. BIOETHICS 56 (2010)