Most of us would do anything to help our children have the best future possible. We would make sure they had the best prenatal environment, the best diet and be sent to the best schools, all so that they could have the best possible future opportunities. But what would we do if we could, before they were born, alter our child’s genes in order to guarantee that advantage? The choice of genetically engineering our children is rapidly becoming a scientific reality, and we are faced with the question: If we are able to safely engineer a child at the genetic level… should we?
Genetic engineering is a topic that is greeted with a combination of curiosity, skepticism and apprehension. Those in favor of genetic engineering have been accused of “playing God”, whereas those opposed have been characterized as being against scientific progress. Many people view genetic engineering as something confined to the domain of science fiction; something so far in the future that it needn’t be worried about. However, with the advance of modern technology, this attitude towards genetic engineering is not only misguided, but can be dangerous.
Nearly every advance in technology comes with unanswered questions, and genetic engineering is no different. What should we do? What will happen if we make certain decisions? How will our decisions affect society? If we have the ability to do it safely, is it ethically permissible to genetically engineer our children? Is there an ethical difference between genetic enhancement and genetic therapy? As people living in the time where genetic engineering is a real possibility, it is vital that we address the bioethical issues surrounding this controversial topic. If we procrastinate in this area and do not address these issues before they come up, we will inevitably make poor decisions that could have been avoided. Like many advancements in science and technology, genetics provides us with an opportunity to be good stewards with what we have. But it also offers us a unique opportunity as well; “… we can begin to determine not simply who will live and who will die, but what all those who live in the future will be like” (Harris & Burley, 2004)
This article is designed as a form of philosophical preventative maintenance, with very real ramifications for the near future. Because it is meant to address issues of genetic engineering specifically, other issues will be avoided. I will assume that genetic engineering will not destroy human embryos and will not result in any unintended changes. These issues need to be addressed by scientists, doctors and ethicists today, but will likely be circumvented with the advance of technology. The purpose of this paper is to ask, “What philosophical issues arise from genetic engineering itself?”
Many moral philosophers and ethicists, when approaching complex ethical issues, have attempted to lay out a principle of moral reasoning that is designed to answer the question, “what ought I to do?” It seems reasonable, therefore, to follow a basic principle of moral reasoning, and philosopher Kurt Baier explores a fairly simple one in his book, “The Moral Point of View”. According to Baier, “The best course of action is… the course of action which is supported by the best reasons. And the best reasons may require us to abandon the aim we actually have set our heart on.” Baier’s two-step approach involves looking at the relevant facts surrounding an issue and determining the relative weight of those considerations “to decide which course of action has the full weight of reason behind it”. (Baier, 1969) Following this approach, it is our job to critically examine the arguments for and against genetic engineering and to support the most reasonable conclusion, given the strongest available arguments on both sides. (more…)