Gene editing and the dignity of ‘the human’

Kelly asked:

Using the ethical theory of deontology criticise and evaluate the practice of gene editing.

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

One has to put the question in a larger context. The Enlightenment was a great project of improving the lot of mankind by putting each and every institution before the ‘tribulanl of reason’ as Kant put it in a lengthy footnote to the foreword of Critique of Pure Reason (1st ed.).

But since humans are objects of our critical review, we always have some vague idea of what is good and what is not in humans. Otherwise there would be no criminal law reflecting on ‘bad behaviour and punishment’ and no education and civilization either which are meant to keep the human excesses and evil tendencies in check.

But even then, a lot of madness and cruelty remains. And the natural response of the Enlightenment was: What to do about that? But this is only on behaviour, of ‘mentality’. The question of sanity and decency in human conduct.

Now what about the body? We call some people ugly. We call other people ‘challenged’. We call people crippled — either from birth or from accidents.

In our age of improvement we want to correct things to the better. That’s natural.

But in our age of science and technology, we try to prevent bad things from happening. Why repair any bodily or mental aberration after birth and not before? At first sight, there is nothing to object.

On second sight, there is a lot of trouble: Who defines what is good?

Only humans can decide what is good or not in humans. Animals can’t. And robots can’t either. Then we enter the problem of eugenics. The Nazis have demonstrated what this comes to: ‘Kill all Jews, they are aberrations and not the right sort of humans!’ ‘Kill all crippled people, all people with dementia, etc.! They are life not worth living!’

From this derives an ethical principle: ‘Humans are not allowed to define what a human is!’ To be more precise: ‘A human is what is born by a human mother.’

Thus we are in an ethical conundrum: We find it natural to improve things, but a human is not a thing for other humans to define, and thus every improvement has to be executed with greatest reluctance, reflection and circumspection.

It is not the case that nothing can be done. Teachers and MDs and surgeons are improving humans all the time. But they shun back from any general concept of improvement. There is no accepted standard of a good and sane human — whether with respect to the body nor to the mind nor to ‘soul and character’. The accepted principle of all medics is always: ‘Try to remove or alleviate suffering — but nothing else!’ Not even euthanasia is generally accepted.

Now, we all sometimes meet a person who seems perfect: Great looks, great mind, great character, great intelligence, a 10 on almost every skale. There are not many of such people, maybe one in 1000, but we know them from personal experience and call them dream women or dream men or superstars. And don’t look for the dark side. Some are really good. There need not be a dark side. They are not only perfect, they are even truly nice and helpful and humble and ready to learn. They are neither arrogant nor neurotic, they are simply perfect. But only one in thousand — or less.

Now imagine a city of 5-10 million inhabitants like London. Then you may see a small city with 5-10 thousand — the perfect people from London! Every one of them is nice and bright and just perfect. Wouldn’t that be your utopia? The new humanity?

Today there are nearly 8 billion humans inhabiting the Earth. Many of them are poor and wretched and some cruel and repellent. What about extracting from these 8 million perfect specimens and get rid of the others and start humanity from scratch? Something like this was on the minds of Hitler and Himmler and some others.

Now you see the real problem. It is not just ‘deontology’. It is a fundamental problem of human existence: ‘What sort of people should there be?’

Look up

For the time being, human engineering is a technical problem: We simply do not know what we do. Thus genetic engineers are reluctant to do much if anything. Only in some cases, preventive measures are allowed even by the Catholic Church. And killing people ‘that are not perfect’ is a no go. But what if genetic engineering becomes really precise? Then people may sue their parents : ‘You could have prevented me! You could have known from my genes that I have this handicap!’

The next step would be to enter the project of trans- and posthumanism: Start creating perfect humans all over again! Look up

This is not killing ‘deficient humans’. There is no natural objection to improving humans. It is called the paradox of transhumanism that ‘improving the human’ may coincide with ‘replacing humans by something better’.

Then we are in the center of metaphysical anthropology: What would we call ‘the essence of humanity’?

Do not even think of ‘man in the image fo God’! We do not think of God as having two legs and two arms, a belly and a head. So what does ‘in the image of God’ come to? It must be something spiritual. But what exactly? A creative mind? And what if a smart computer displays a creative mind? Would the computer be built ‘in the image of God’?

Once you start genetic engineering of humans there is much much more to it than mere gene editing and IVF. You are right in the middle of metaphysical humanism.

This is only a starter, just some hints. And now that you have seen the whole picture, you may get to your original question on the details.

Look up

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.