We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

How Conservatives View Human Enhancement

Science Not Fiction
By Kyle Munkittrick
Mar 1, 2011 8:54 AMNov 20, 2019 3:56 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

If there is anything the internet is good for beyond cat photos (see "le sneak" above), it is for arguing. In the spirit of elevating the discourse, I'm going to try and salvage the aftermath of my designer baby post, which itself was a response to Peter Lawler's post

. In the process, I'll explain to you exactly how social conservatives view the human enhancement debate. A quick recap: Peter Lawler wrote a post at Big Think about Designer Babies and how they pose a threat to the middle class. I responded with a brilliant rebuttal

that displayed my rapier wit and rhetorical dynamism. Now, the chaps at The New Atlantis' Futurisms

are unhappy with how I portrayed George W. Bush's President's Council on Bioethics and Peter Lawler in that magnificent post. Peter Lawler also "responded

" to me by block-quoting the arguments of blogger Minerva, who writes her own blog

. Minerva made some astute comments about the social ramifications of human enhancement and worried I was not considering them; Lawler took her points and used them as a springboard to describe me as "intolerantly judgmental

." What did I say about religion again? Let's re-read my artful prose:

I have a very, very hard time disagreeing with Haraway that teaching creationism is a form of abuse. Any religious fundamentalism (funny how Lawler neglects Islam, Judaism, and protestants) is a pestilence. Believe in whatever Supreme Being you so desire, just don’t attempt to derive logic or laws that govern the rest of us from the fictive texts you hold so dear.

Man, that's great. I claim that fundamentalists teaching their children the Earth is 6000 years old is awful and borderline neglect; Lawler argues that makes me intolerant. He is wrong. Let me be clear. I do not believe those who are religious are stupid, abusive, or bad parents. I believe fundamentalists often are those who teach their children Creationism: that evolution is not real, that the Earth is 6000 years old, or that Noah forgot the dinosaurs. Fundamentalists of all religions also attempt to impose their beliefs by law and that should be opposed at all turns. Finally, I grew up Christian, have studied religion more than is probably healthy and remain far more agnostic than atheist. Let's drop the "he hates religion" canard and address the actual claims against engineering. On that note, let me first address Minerva's concerns about human enhancement, as they are actually cogent and relevant. To begin, Minerva, I agree with you. Enhancement is eugenics. I've said it before and I'll say it again

, I support eugenics. Now let me tell you why. In the bioethics canon, there are few texts as impressive as From Chance to Choice by Alan Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wilker. The second chapter of the book is "Eugenics and Its Shadow" in which the many ethical violations done by Nazis, Social Darwinists, and other eugenicists of the early 20th century are analyzed and explained. In the conclusion of their chapter they argue:

"[The abuses of Nazis and Social Darwinists], however, do not lend themselves to condemnation of the eugenicists' every thought and goal, any more than Nazi cost-benefit thinking condemns cost-benefit thinking. ... Reprehensible as much of the eugenic program was, there is something unobjectionable and perhaps even morally required in the part of its motivation that sought to endow future generations with genes that might enable their lives to go better. We need not abandon this motivation if we can pursue it justly."

Honestly, I'd love to spend more time talking about the nuanced ways in which enhancing children might impact social strata. But the debate isn't there yet. Folks like Lawler are keeping things as rudimentary as possible. But, briefly, let me try. Social norms guide what we think of as valuable and good. Enhancement seems as though it will drive a kind of arms race as to who will have the most super kid while also creating a Gattaca like split between valids and invalids. The rebuttal here is three-fold. First, there is already tremendous social pressure to raise children a certain way, that's why I linked to the Achievatron and Tiger mothers in the first post. No one denies hyper-parents are a problem, but they exist already without enhancement. Second, are most of the parents you know hyper-parents? Unlikely. Most of the parents you know want to give their kids a good life and help any way they can. When you think of enhancement, think of your friends who are good parents already and how they might use a new technology to help their kids. Third, concerns of a split society arise around every new technology. My job as an ethicist is to help ensure that such a split doesn't happen, and to fight to close the current gap in things like health care. Finally, Minerva makes a great point about physical enhancements being the main goal, not moral enhancement. I submit that for serious proponents of human enhancement, the goals are to improve intelligence, morality, and health. For further reading, I suggest John Harris' "Moral Enhancement and Freedom," Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson's "The Perils of of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity," and David Wasserman and S. Matthew Liao's "Issues on the Pharmacological Induction of Emotions." All of these fine essays just begin to deal with the possible ethical consequences of enhancement. Now, on to the critiques of Mr. Keiper at Futurisms

. Here they are, in turn. 1. Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”? Mr. Keiper's says, No! And he is technically correct (the best kind of correct). Bush himself announced that he was restricting funding on new stem cell lines. A few members of the Council disagreed

. They were canned

. The remainder of the PCBE supported Bush's policy and wrote a report

about how great it was. That's right, those who disagreed with Bush's policy were either dismissed or ignored, and the PCBE never once dissented in a meaningful way from Bush's established line. 2. Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”? Again, No! It seems I am either mistaken or lying. I admit it, it was sort of both. I was fairly glib with my insults flying fast and furious against what Minerva so aptly calls the "un-think tank" that is the PCBE. You see, I conflate the views of the members with the views of the Council itself. For example, let's see what Leon Kass, who chaired the Council, thinks about abortion:

Twenty-five years ago, abortion was still largely illegal and thought to be immoral, the sexual revolution (made possible by the extramarital use of the pill) was still in its infancy, and few had yet heard about the reproductive rights of single women, homosexual men and lesbians. (Never mind shameless memoirs about one’s own incest!) Then one could argue, without embarrassment, that the new technologies of human reproduction — babies without sex — and their confounding of normal kin relations — who’s the mother: the egg donor, the surrogate who carries and delivers, or the one who rears? — would “undermine the justification and support that biological parenthood gives to the monogamous marriage.”

That is a tone right there of a man who would love teens to know about condoms and birth-control for safe pre-marital sex. Right? Oh, but he's not done:

Thanks to the sexual revolution, we are able to deny in practice, and increasingly in thought, the inherent procreative teleology of sexuality itself. But, if sex has no intrinsic connection to generating babies, babies need have no necessary connection to sex. Thanks to feminism and the gay rights movement, we are increasingly encouraged to treat the natural heterosexual difference and its preeminence as a matter of “cultural construction.” But if male and female are not normatively complementary and generatively significant, babies need not come from male and female complementarity. Thanks to the prominence and the acceptability of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, stable, monogamous marriage as the ideal home for procreation is no longer the agreed-upon cultural norm. For this new dispensation, the clone is the ideal emblem: the ultimate “single-parent child.”

Are you starting to get a picture of how the PCBE thought about biotechnologies? Did I lump their ideas together with general socially conservative politics? Yes! Was that inappropriate or out-of-line with how they think? No, not at all. Kass was the Chair of Bush's Council, he was the guiding light, the overseer, the big picture guy. So did they talk about abstinence only sex ed? No, they didn't, you got me. Did they support safe-sex ed? Hell no. 3. Was the council filled with terrible thinkers and philosophers? Alright, that was mean-spirited. I take it back. Sorry. That said: Charles Krauthammer, torture cheerleader, was asked questions of human ethics in all seriousness. The mind, it boggles. 4. Was the council a rubber-stamp for Bush and Cheney's policies? I refer you to my answers to question 1. You be the judge. Finally (whew, this is a long one) we return to Peter Lawler's rhetorical cacophony (i.e. arguments). Lawler argues, in various turns, that designer babies will cause: 1) a performance arms-race, 2) an obsession with productivity over personhood 3) a loss of making children "the old fashioned way" 4) discrimination against the disabled 5) outlawing religion and 6) individuals to lose autonomy. My simplified argument is as follows. Designer babies are not the threat Peter Lawler makes them out to be. Lawler's arguments are flawed because 1) many enhancements are not zero-sum goods. If you and I are both intelligent, it is still good for me that I am intelligent; 2) no different than now, some parents will drive their children too hard, others will enable them to live good, rounded lives 3) "old fashioned" does not equal good; also, sex separated from reproduction means more pleasure, fewer unwanted babies; 4) those who seek a cure for cancer do not devalue cancer sufferers; 5) I simply don't know how to address his religion argument, it's so off base. In short, no, religion won't be illegal, but you should be ashamed if you don't teach your child about basic science; 6) the loss of autonomy requires deterministic genetic reductionism, a widely rejected theory. There it is. That's my argument. As quick, clear, and concise as I can make it. Bioethics and transhumanism is an amazingly huge topic. I assail Singularity zealots on the one side for dismissing the ethics and thinking that exponential acceleration will solve everything. On the other side, I rail against bioconservatives for claiming that genetic engineering is an affront to human nature. Between the Rapture of the Nerds and the Biotech Apocalypse lies the future world in which we will really be living. That is the world I think about. The gist of this whole post is simple: genetic engineering is just another way to make children and give them the best shot at life possible. Our job as ethicists is not to panic and say how scary a new technology is, but instead rationally usher it into our midst. The most difficult and thought-provoking part of this process is just beginning with genetic engineering. Let's not waste time arguing if children are going to suddenly become things their parents treat like show ponies simply because some genes were tweaked to boost valuable traits. Honestly, I'm always amazed at how bleak a picture of humanity bioconservatives are forced to paint when talking about how genetic engineering will change human nature. I believe eugenics – un-coerced, readily available, and with the child's best interests in mind – can do amazing things to improve human equality, morality, and progress. And if it turns out the genetic revolution never comes to pass, so be it. In the process of having these discussions, my hope is to discover a few principles that can guide our ethical development as a species regardless of what the future holds. I sincerely welcome responses in the comments, for the sake of specificity and the ability to rebut directly, particularly from Minerva, Mr. Keiper and Mr. Lawler. Follow Kyle on his blog

and on twitter


No image is appropriate for internet debates, so I just picked a great cat photo. Image via reddit user


who certainly reposted it from elsewhere. If you know the original photog, please let me know in the comments so I can give credit where credit is due.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.