04 April 2012

Bring on the Shapers

philosophy bites | Julian Savulescu on Designer Babies

Should we select advantageous genes and deselect disadvantageous ones when having children? Julian Savulescu believes that we should.
Savulescu's position is actually stronger than that. Not only should people be free to select advantageous genes, they have a moral obligation to do so, in the same way they have a moral obligation to take prenatal vitamins or stop smoking or make sure their children eat a healthy diet.

My rule-of-thumb for this and related issues is that if you're willing to let an education regime try and influence a trait there's no reason to prohibit bioscience from influencing the same trait. If it's okay to send your child to a school which tries to make students more creative, or empathetic, or disciplined, or artistic, or athletic then it's okay to seek the same goals through technology. That is, if it's okay to change their state through nurture then it's okay to change their state through genetics. I think that rule covers all the concerns I've heard raised about designed babies.

(Presuming, of course, that we maintain epistemic humility about our biotech skills. Although, frankly, we're rather short on humility when it comes to our opinion of education as well, so I think the parallel between the two is maintained.)

I predict the opposition to this position will come from two camps: religiously-oriented luddites and those who put far more emphasis on relative income distributions than absolute income levels.

(Selecting for a smarter child makes no one else less smart, but could push other people further down the intelligence rankings. Even though everyone wants to live in a society with smarter rather than stupider people (otherwise why spend money on education?) the Pareto improvement to intelligence will be disregarded by people who are more concerned with their relative standing.)

The only complaint I have with Savulescu is that his language is a bit collectivist. He says a couple of times that "we" will need to have a better conception of what it means to have a good life. But "we" don't need to do that. Future parents need to figure out the answer to that question for themselves. A plurality of answers to that issue is fine. I think Savulescu would agree with me about that, but his word choice betrays a frame in which this is something society must sort out, rather than individuals.

ETA 4 April 2012: Via Bryan Caplan, I have just learned a word that I think describes well the moral standing of parents taking agency over their children's genetics: "supererogatory."

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