theodore dalrymple

Bioengineering Ethics

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Can scientists bioengineer people with better ethics? Are there genes that switch us from wretches to saints? Professor Julian Savulescu, Oxford professor and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, says yes and advises that parents have a “moral obligation” to select for the best personalities for their children so they can be “ethically better”.

“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”.

He said that science is increasingly discovering that genes have a significant influence on personality – with certain genetic markers in embryo suggesting future characteristics. By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out. In the end, he said that “rational design” would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future.

“Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?” wrote Prof Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor in practical ethics.”

But is it really our genes that are the problem? If we design the next generation to be better ethically and morally, so that the next generation is then better, and so on, isn’t that the same as bioengineering a human robot? If you minimize, and then eliminate, the biological influences (supposedly personality flaws) on decision-making, essentially removing our desire for wrong-doing (defined as “bad for self and society”), you have removed free will. How does one genetically select for “good” free will? This is the logical conclusion of a naturalist explanation of human existence. The bad that humans do is simply a result of bad genes and bad environments, and it removes completely the any act of free will.

That begs the question: couldn’t God have made us with perfect genes? Why did he create such flawed personalities in the first place? C.S. Lewis writing in “Mere Christianity”, sheds some light:

“‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’ The better stuff a creature is made of–the cleverer and stronger and freer it is–then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best–or worst–of all.”

Savulescu doesn’t understand that no matter the genetic make-up, humans still have free will and can exercise it to good or evil. He obviously does not believe that there is any Moral Law, is a complete naturalist, believing that perfect genes would produce a perfect being. But in essence, in the attempt to bioengineer superheroes, we will still end up with supervillians.

In the book Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson speaks to us through the reflections of the character of Imlac, when he and Rasselas finally arrive at the pyramids.

“For the pyramids, no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security. It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use till use is supplied must begin to build for vanity….I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments.”

This is the lesson of history. People in perfect health and wealth will still choose self-glorification, and will make miserable others to achieve their selfish ends.

I had (sadly) never heard of Samuel Johnson before I started reading Not with a Bang but a Whimper by Theodore Dalrymple. The book is a collection of essays about the decline of Western culture, and its emphasis (so far) is directed at the decline in moral character. It is not the genes that make us better men, it is our moral decisions that do. And that comes from living a life of flaws.

Of Johnson, Dalrymple writes that “at every moment [he] reflects on the moral meaning and consequences of human life.” In his biography of Richard Savage, Johnson reflects on the faults of the poet. Dalrymple asks, “Who could fail to recognize a common human pattern in his delineation of Savage’s greatest failing?”

“By imputing none of his miseries to himself he continued to act upon the same principles and to follow the same path; was never made wiser by his sufferings, nor preserved by one misfortune from falling into another. He proceeded throughout his life to tread the same steps on the same circle; always applauding his past conduct, or at least forgetting it, to amuse himself with phantoms of happiness which were dancing before him, and willingly turned his eye from the light of reason, when it would have discovered the illusion and shown him, what he never wanted to see, his real state.”

There is only one path to wisdom. It is spiritual, and it is open to everyone of all genetic make-ups.

Note: I have since downloaded the free Kindle version of Rasselas and plan to read it soon.