The human race has long-sought to improve itself, be this by the implementation of education, or the development of certain technologies. We are now, however, on the precipice of a whole new era of human improvement: genetic engineering. Editing the human genome has been a hotly debated topic for some time; the scientific community drew a line in the sand that no experimentation or research on genetic editing in humans should take place until it is fully and completely understood. This line, however, was recently crossed by a Chinese scientist He Jiankui, acting practically alone with no support from ethics boards or governments. He not only edited a human embryo but had them born by IVF. This has sparked mass outrage and debate across the world; however, at the beginning of this new era we ask: ‘How far should genetic engineering go to achieve desirable traits in humans?’.
Should genetic modification happen in the first place?
Firstly, we should consider whether human genetic modification should take place at all. We can already see that genetic modifying will bring some clear benefits to humans, one clear advantage bein the opportunity to mitigate a vast number of preventable and genetic diseases in unborn children, eliminating a great deal of future suffering. From a utilitarianist point of view this is clearly the correct course of action; however, many people, particularly religious groups, are against modifying the natural human state.
Christians, for example, teach that ‘God made man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27), and as such many may feel that genetic alterations are at odds with God’s work. From this religious duty ethics perspective, genetic editing would not be a moral practice. Many parts of the world still value religion very highly in their culture, and many practises and opinions are formed based from doctrine. With Christian and Islamic populations alone reaching 4.1 billion people worldwide (more than half of the planet’s 7.5 billion people), would this conflict of utilitarian and religious duty ethics be enough to cause a rift in the populace? And would that, therefore, act against our duty of care? Starting to profane our bodies, which ‘are temples of the Holy Spirit’ (Corinthians 6:19-20) may spark mass outrage, violence and lead into internal or international war. Considering this, do we therefore have a duty of care not to release this upon the masses when it may spark war in our shifting times? Actions reverberate globally, and so care must be taken in considering both the benefits and risks in implementing this technology.
Looking into the future, we must now consider the potential effects this modification could have on humanity’s productivity and technological advancement. We live in a society dominated by money and economics and so it makes complete sense that genetic enhancements may be tuned to focus on these factors. There is potential to create a far more productive human species by editing genes that may allow us to have less sleep, maintain concentration for longer periods of time, and retain more information. This could greatly benefit humankind as it would allow the rate of scientific development to exponentially increase; furthering the human race to create a ‘super-productive species’. Examples of this idea that productivity benefits the economy can be seen in countries such as China, where people working longer hours can increase the nation’s financial power. By bringing together the best of humanity it would be possible to accelerate the growth of the human race towards its full potential. Therefore, from both a utilitarian and deontological ethics perspective, the scientific community has a duty to develop this technology.
However, from a care ethical perspective this type of modification may be a step too far. Are humans simply just machines that can be optimised? The understanding of what this may do to families and the happiness of individuals is of paramount importance shown by how in countries with a poor work and life balance there is a less happy population. There is also an ethical duty side to this economic argument as it is very debatable that editing humans to make money is far from a moral path to take.
Effects on individuals and society
With the eventual advancements of genetic editing it is likely that, given the opportunity, most humans would choose for their children to ‘inherit’ desirable traits such as greater intelligence and physical prowess. This may result in a higher standard of living due to heightened intelligence, greater physical ability and a healthier populace. Human intelligence and physicality, therefore, may be able to contest future developments of workplace robots and allow for job availability to remain more viable into the future. These are positive effects from both a utilitarian and care ethics point of view.
However, we must again consider the implementation of this technology. In today’s society, many people aspire to achieve the ‘ideal’ version of themselves and spend a lot of money, time and resources in order to do so. If we were able to edit aspects by which people are judged presently in society such as height, predispositions to sport, and our appearance, would this cause a loss of individuality due to parents editing their children to be ‘ideal’? Is editing a human’s predispositions and appearance before they are even able to be born moral? If we are to consider this from our present society’s duty ethics as well as from a religious duty perspective, this is morally wrong. Changing a human before they are born may be considered to be murdering the old version of the human to replace it with a more perfect copy of the ‘ideal’ human.
It can also be speculated that the implementation of this technology would most likely only be available to the rich to begin with.This would therefore cause rich children to be born with even more advantages and so perpetuate the ‘rich getting richer’ cycle in our society, as well as creating a new breed of people that may be considered ‘freaks’ or outcasts by the general populace without any choice by them in the matter. Therefore, considering this situation from a care ethics perspective, it is morally wrong.
As outlined in this article, there are many arguments of differing levels for and against the genetic tuning of humans, and so this topic is very divisive, with opinions differing from person to person. We therefore ask you for your own opinion, how far should genetic engineering go to achieve desirable traits in humans?