Does Genetic Engineering Endanger Human Freedom?

By Wolfson, Adam; Bailey, Ronald | The American Enterprise, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Does Genetic Engineering Endanger Human Freedom?


Wolfson, Adam, Bailey, Ronald, The American Enterprise


Adam Wolfson:

In The Republic, Socrates suggests, tongue firmly in cheek, that rulers should be bred scientifically, just as dogs, cocks, and horses are. The proposal was meant to be ludicrous. Yet today we are seriously debating whether a good way of making a horse is also a good way of making a man.

The taboo against manipulation of the human species through genetics, in place since the Nazi genocide, is breaking down. Even conservative publications like National Review and the Wall Street Journal have run articles defending aspects of the new eugenics.

There are many reasons for this breakdown, the most benign of which are the rapid advances in genetic science. The mapping of the human genome last year and numerous other breakthroughs promise exciting new medical treatments. These are obviously good things. I know of no one who wishes to halt such advances as long as they are pursued responsibly. Instead, the debate centers around something deeper: the thoroughgoing genetic transformation of man.

Harvard professor E. O. Wilson has claimed that within even the next several decades, we will enter an era of "volitional evolution," in which it will be possible to alter human intelligence and the very core of human nature itself---our basic drives and emotions. (Wilson opposes doing any such thing and argues for correcting only clear-cut genetic defects.)

It is in the ethics of such futuristic eugenics that the tensions between liberal civilization and genetic engineering are most clearly visible. Thus when I use the terms "genetic engineering" and "eugenics," I am referring to the genetic transformation of man, not to the medical treatment of disease. In what follows, I will draw on arguments first made by C.S. Lewis, Hans Jonas, and Leon Kass.

Liberals argue that scientists should be free to pursue their research without prohibition or restriction. The philosopher Ronald Dworkin, for example, argues that the principle of individualism "forbids ... hobbling the scientists and doctors who volunteer to lead" the eugenic effort.

Yet freedom of inquiry in the context of genetic engineering is no simple matter. The genetic engineer attempting to improve the species asks for more than freedom of thought: He is directly intervening in our society's future. Remember, his discoveries come about only through experiments--on human beings. The end he seeks is alteration of the human condition. In both his methods and his goals, the genetic engineer's investigations intimately involve him in society, politics, and the private lives of individuals. His freedom, therefore, cannot be absolute.

Consider cloning. Many animal clones suffer from severe abnormalities: fatty livers and oversized placentas; monstrously enlarged navels and various head deformities; defective arteries, lungs, and immune systems. Most of these creatures have to be euthanized. This is why many scientists, including Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, oppose cloning human beings. A eugenics program for humans would inevitably produce large numbers of malformed and sick infants. What will happen to these unfortunate beings? Will they be thrown away? Or recalled like a defective product?

Ronald Bailey has argued in regard to cloning that it is mere "hubris" to tell "other people what is best for them," or what degree of risk they should be allowed to bear. The liberal bioethicist Arthur Caplan has likewise argued that individuals should be free to make their own eugenic choices. But by banning cloning, society does not tell scientists or other people what is best for them, or what risks they should be allowed to take. Nor would a restriction on eugenics infringe on individual liberty. Rather, society is protecting the dignity of the potential subjects of the cloning or experiments. To clone or genetically engineer a human being is not to do as you please with your own body and life; it is to do as you please with another person's body and life. …

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