Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications

Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications

Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications

Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications

Excerpt

At a Hastings Center meeting in 1993, LeRoy Walters gave a presentation on “enhancement.” He invited his audience to suspend disbelief and imagine four scenarios. The first, which involved a genetic intervention that could “enhance” our ability to resist disease, inspired little controversy. If one can assume that all persons will have equal access to such a new form of prevention, then it's difficult to see what the worries might be.

About the second scenario, however, there was some controversy. Here Walters invited us to imagine a genetic intervention that could “enhance” our ability to be alert without needing to sleep as much as we do now. Anybody with young children can appreciate how terrific it might be to need less sleep. But wouldn't sleeping less mean dreaming less? Would that be a good thing? And what sorts of projects would we expect ourselves to pursue with the extra time?

The third scenario also raised some concern. Here Walters invited us to imagine a genetic intervention that could “enhance” our longterm memory. Anyone past thirty-five can appreciate the benefits of that intervention. But would such an enhancement also mean that one would be saddled forever with some memories one would rather forget?

None of the scenarios raised controversy like the last. Here Walters asked us to suppose that there was a genetic intervention “aimed at reducing the ferocious tendencies of human beings and increasing their generous tendencies.” Such an intervention could compensate for “a tragic, perhaps even fatal, evolutionary flaw in our species.” At this point at least one member of the audience nearly blew a gasket. You mean you think we're wise enough to know what level of generosity we ought to try to achieve with a new genetic technology? Mightn't a genetic intervention aimed at enhancing generosity inadvertently eliminate, say, the capacity for creativity or the desire for distinction? Are we so confident in the wisdom of our conceptions of normality and perfection that we are prepared to use new genetic technologies to achieve them?

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