In my new book Enhancing Evolution, I argue that it is not only feasible to use genetic technology to make people more healthy, intelligent and longer-lived, it’s our moral duty to do so.

Illustration for John Harris's article in Nov/Dec issueOf course this is a controversial argument. For every person who might agree with me there is another, perhaps many others, who find the idea repugnant. Whether you are in the “wow” or the “yuck” camp, the question whether we should make improvements to human beings and to human nature itself is one of the most urgent of all the questions facing us. We need to consider it seriously and soon, because the technology is moving rapidly and presenting us with possibilities undreamed of even a short while ago. New types of regenerative medicine look capable of enabling human tissue to repair itself; new drugs can improve concentration and memory or enable us to function for much longer periods without sleep; brain–computer interfaces are emerging, enabling us to access digital files as we do our own memories; and techniques are becoming available that will radically extend life expectancy from tens to hundreds of years.

Nobel Laureate David Baltimore’s lab at Caltech is working on the possibility of engineering into cells resistance to HIV/Aids and cancer. Such research is self-evidently enhancement as it goes beyond what scientists call “species typical functioning”, in the interests of improving human life and life chances. My view is that this and other such research is a self-evident good and I hope that Baltimore succeeds.

But there are many influential people, apparently, who hope for the opposite. Objections to such scientific advances have been voiced by many prominent thinkers, including bioethicist Leon Kass, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandal and political scientist Francis Fukuyama. But perhaps the most famous and influential voice is that of the German philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas. It is worth looking at his objections in some detail as I think they are emblematic of the kind of fuzzy logic and quasi-religious arguments which underpin so much of the “yuck” camp’s case. If we can see clearly why the arguments of Habermas fail, the way will be open for a more rational evaluation of particular enhancing technologies as they become available

In his book The Future of Human Nature (2003) Habermas produces two sets of arguments. The first concerns the innate evils of actions which might control or pre-empt the decisions of future generations. Habermas takes up the ideas of the German philosopher Hans Jonas, whose work focused on the social and ethical consequence of technology. Habermas cites Jonas’s powerfully expressed objection to the taking of decisions which might determine the future. In a passage quoted by Habermas, Jonas questions the power to decide for future generations: “Whose power is this – and over whom or over what? Obviously, the power of those living today over those coming after them, who will be the defenceless objects of prior choices made by the planners of today. The other side of the power of today is the future bondage of the living to the dead.”

Habermas endorses this idea of the illegitimacy of eugenic control. He appears to have two main objections. The first is a matter of consent: “With genetic enhancement, there is no communicative scope for the projected child to be addressed as a second person and to be involved in a communication process. From the adolescent’s perspective, an instrumental determination cannot ... be revised by ‘critical re-appraisal’.”

But if consent were required before we could do irreversible things for or to children (vaccination, for example), few children would survive long enough to grow to adulthood and the consequent cruelty to children would be ethically insupportable.
It is surely obvious that we cannot avoid making decisions when failure to do so may adversely affect others. To decide not to intervene to enhance where we can do so is to condemn future generations to life without the advantages we might have bestowed. They can no more consent to this deprivation than they can consent to the interventions to which Habermas objects.

From the adolescent’s perspective they are as much excluded from decisions not to enhance as from decisions to give them what are perceived as benefits. The “future bondage of the living to the dead” is a permanent feature of generational life. Our freedom is no more threatened by the possibility of human enhancement than by the myriad of other prior decisions that have determined the nature of the world we have inherited and the bodies and minds we possess.

Habermas’s second objection concerns the moral status of an individual who had benefited from enhancement technology: “Eugenic interventions aiming at enhancement reduce ethical freedom in so far as they tie down the person concerned to rejected, but irreversible intentions of third parties, barring him from the spontaneous self perception of being the undivided author of his own life.” This, he suggests, will have disastrous consequences for interpersonal relationships that are “no longer consistent with the egalitarian premises of morality and law”. He produces the following support for this argument: “In the context of democratically constituted pluralistic society where every citizen has an equal right to an autonomous conduct of life, practices of enhancing eugenics cannot be ‘normalised’ in a legitimate way, because the selection of desirable dispositions cannot be a priori dissociated from the judgment of specific life projects.”

Habermas seems to be saying that because future enhanced individuals have not chosen their enhanced nature they cannot conduct their lives autonomously. But we are all in the position of having had “the way we are” determined by a combination of the acts and omissions of our parents and others with whom we have interacted since conception. If this is inimical to equality or autonomy then neither equality nor autonomy exist, nor have they ever existed.

In a postscript he returns to this theme, suggesting that if we want to understand the harms of enhancement correctly we need to consider them in the light of a model of a particular moral community: “According to this model, eugenic practices, while they are not directly intervening into the genetically modified person’s spheres of free action, might well harm the status of the future person as a member of the universe of moral beings ... In the moral universe, subjection of a person to the unjustly imposed arbitrary will of another one is ruled out.”

However, the enhancements discussed in my book, to which Habermas would undoubtedly object, are neither arbitrarily imposed nor unjust. They are imposed to benefit the recipients and arguably it would be unjust to deny them these benefits. When Habermas avers that enhancement “might well” harm the status of the future person, he is saying something pathetically weak. This is simply reckless speculation: quite simply it might well not! Consider an example of such an alien intervention: work, like Baltimore’s, to develop genetic interventions to change the human genome in ways that prevent cancer and heart disease. Would future people denied such benefits not feel they had been victims of the “unjustly imposed arbitrary will of another”?

Is there, in fact, any reason to suppose, as Habermas hypothesises, that genetic enhancement threatens membership of the universe of moral beings? It seems to come down to how we imagine future people will feel about knowing they have benefited from enhancements. Habermas sees only doom and gloom: “In so far as the genetically altered person feels that the scope for a possible use of her ethical freedom has been intentionally changed by a prenatal design, she may suffer from the consciousness of sharing authorship of her own life and her own destiny with someone else.”

But the “in so far as” may be no distance at all and the “may” maybe not. Since we cannot by hypothesis know either way, we have no basis for decision-making and certainly no more reason to decide with Habermas than against him.

The denial of beneficial enhancements to others, whether they are our children or strangers, would be a breach of two of the most powerful moral principles, the duty to do good and the duty not to harm; whereas the consequences of that denial would leave someone more vulnerable to harm and less able to lead a healthy, fulfilling life. In short, Habermas is wrong and there is a clear positive moral duty to enhance.