Is Gene-Enhancement Ethical?

Hello Aristotle,

I just read about a researcher in China who was sentenced to three years in prison for creating, what he says are, the first “gene-edited babies.”

This may be a broad question, but regarding these new gene-editing technologies, what would be some ethical questions to consider in regards to gene-enhancement?

Oh, and welcome to the 21st century Aristotle 🙂

Thank you,

Dear Joel

Thanks for your question, Joel. The 21st century has been a blast so far. All sorts of new ethical problems to consider. And as a philosopher who cares about the details, it is fascinating to work through all the intricate ethical aspects involved with evolving technologies.

If you were to ask another philosopher, there might be many concerns about equality in relation to gene editing, i.e., “Will the rich and poor have the same access to editing?” Or maybe, “Will gene editing widen the gap between the rich and the poor?” I myself am not all that concerned about equality. I think some persons are better than others in all sorts of ways – better looking, better ethically, more intelligent, etc. And I think persons who are better often deserve a better social position in accordance with their superior talents. That being said, although I am not all that concerned about equality for equality’s sake, I do care about justice; sometimes equality can be relevant in determining which types of situations and activities are just or unjust.

It has been a few thousand years since I wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, yet I still stand by a comment I made hundreds of centuries past: childhood is critically important to the development of moral character. In other words, parents have a tremendous impact on whether their children will turn out to be virtuous or viscous. Gene editing can conceivably multiple this importance many times over. Moreover, because a society is made up of its citizens, the control that parents have over their children is directly relevant to the health of the overall community. Because of this, some of the key ethical issues that arise are political: should parents have the power to manipulate the genes of their children while disregarding any potential impact on society as a whole? Should politicians pay careful attention to how laws and regulations about gene editing might impact what sort of children are born and how this can have good or bad consequences for the polity? Lastly, should we worry about unintended consequences of this type of editing? For instance, if we create a certain subset of the population that is especially smart, will the smart ones who fall short in moral character manipulate the social fabric in viscous and unjust ways, i.e. in ways that allow them to get away with tax fraud, or even literally get away with murder? Perhaps there should be strict regulations in place that limit the use of gene editing until we know much more about the entire process, and hence can fully understand the potential social and political side effects.

Overall, it seems to me that the most interesting ethical issues are social and political rather than individual. Parents will have the same responsibility as always: raising their children so they become virtuous citizens that ethically contribute to their community. There are, of course, different ways that parents can succeed or fail in this because of gene editing, but there are already many, many, different ways for parents to succeed or fail. Moreover, I am not too concerned about the “autonomy” issues brought up by other ethicists. We are all, or almost all, raised by parental figures that have enormous impact over our health, character, safety, and happiness. I do not see how gene editing changes this in any meaningful way. Those who worry that it might are probably underestimating the power that parents already, and have always, had over their children (and how this power has always limited the child’s autonomy long after they are “adult children”).



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