The ethics of enhancement.

The ethics of enhancement.

The ethics of enhancement.

The quest to build better people.
March 12 2003 3:21 PM

The Ethics of Enhancement

We can make ourselves stronger, faster, smarter. Should we?

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There is also an obvious libertarian counterargument to the safety problem: We allow adults to take all kinds of risks for the sake of pleasure—from jumping cars on motorcycles to piercing their nipples to humiliating themselves on Joe Millionaire. Enhancement is no different, except it usually requires a doctor's help. It's my body, and I'll pry if I want to.


But the libertarian argument fades when it comes to enhancing children. Currently, we permit parents to accept medical risks on behalf of their children but only for physical problems. The government should discourage, and perhaps even prevent, parents from exposing their children to terrible risks for the sake of ambition. It's wrong for parents to risk a kid's eyesight for supervision or dose their promising young linebacker with MGF so he can win a scholarship to Notre Dame.

A few weeks ago, I heard Leon Kass lecture on the perils of enhancement. After much eloquent agonizing, he concluded that enhancement is troubling because it's a form of cheating. His was a Protestant ethic critique: Enhancement allows us to gain extraordinary powers without working for them, severing the "relationship between doing and accomplishment." This cheating diminishes us by depriving us of the sense that we must work to make anything worthwhile.

But the logical conclusion of Kass' argument against enhancement is that things were much better in the Bronze Age. After all, the last several thousand years have been an endless march toward diminishing the amount of drudge work we have to do. The automobile cheats us of the work of walking to our destination. Anesthetics deprive women of the healthy pain they should feel during childbirth. Computers weaken our brains by performing the computations that we should be doing in our heads. Yet we've embraced automobile and computers; why should his argument stand only when it comes to enhancement?

There is a fundamental weakness to the cheating argument: Enhancements do not eliminate work. They just change the nature of it. For example, football players train much harder today than they did a generation ago, even though many of them cheat with steroids. They play a game that is faster and more physical (and better) than it used to be. Why is the game better? The players are faster and stronger and better-conditioned—in part because they cheat with steroids. Similarly, computers have not abolished work: They have liberated people to explore new, different subjects, rather than waste their time adding columns of numbers or endlessly retyping documents.

Can DNA bear tweaking?
Can DNA bear tweaking?

Hubris Evolution is a slow and fussy process. Human beings have taken shape over millions of years. There have been false starts, countless mutations, blind alleys. But the enhancers propose radically altering our genes in an evolutionary blink of an eye. They want to start adding DNA to embryos and manufacturing new genes to insert in our eyes and ears and muscles.

This is unsettling. Can the brain and body handle such extraordinary shake-ups? For the moment, we are very crude workmen with DNA. Genetic enhancement may be a wonderful future prospect, but we shouldn't play with it casually. We may create genes that we can't control, engineer children who don't come out the way we expect.

The rich will be enhanced first. Only folks with cash to burn will be able to afford the fancy new memory drugs or fiendishly complicated new gene transfer technologies.

This is troubling for two reasons. First, frivolous enhancement siphons away resources from basic health care for billions. (Then again, so does Viagra, or research on balding, or liposuction.)

Second, is it right to let the enhanced group exploit their advantage to rule over the rest of us? The rich kid can score the Provigil that keeps him alert through the SAT, but the poor kid can't. The job applicant who takes memory drugs will have the jump on one who doesn't. The inequities could be glaring.

But people already gain all kinds of unfair advantages from being tall or white or good-looking or rich. Enhancement is, in some ways, a less troubling kind of inequity because it has something to do with actual ability. The person who takes the memory drug probably can do a better job at the law firm than the person who doesn't: The enhancement really will help performance (unlike good looks, which wouldn't make someone a better lawyer).