[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Round 1

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]

by David Severa

Libertes’ Opening Statement

Genetic engineering is worthy of the most careful thought and this discussion goes right to the biggest questions. Should we change human nature at a biological level? If so, who should be in charge? My starting assumption is that activities shouldn’t be banned without clear and pressing reasons for doing so. The history of science and technology shows that freedom is foundational to progress. (Which isn’t to say that some regulation may not be wise, that goes beyond what I’ve set out to prove.) Genetic engineering should generally be freely available to individuals, and that freedom should extend to prospective parents choosing their child’s genotype, even (should it prove possible) selecting for such traits as intelligence and personality. Any prohibition would be harmful to individual liberty, to future children, and to society as a whole.

Given that freedom of choice is our starting premise, it falls upon opponents to prove the necessity of a ban for some greater purpose. I will go through some of the obvious arguments and show them to be inadequate.

Firstly, the idea that children have some sort of right to an unedited genome can quickly be dispensed with. It is transparently a post hoc rationalization for pretending that something is fundamentally bad just because one is uncomfortable with it. Rights – both positive and negative – are in essence about keeping the possibilities for individual choice as wide as possible. Freedom of speech and religion and conscience are obvious. Positive rights – “freedom from want” – are also about helping to free people from coercive circumstances. (Not to take a stand on positive rights, just pointing out the underlying logic.) Is a child’s freedom of action in some way limited because of an altered genome? No more or less so than anyone else whose choices are limited by their luck in the genetic lottery. (And in general one would assume that parents will try to expand their child’s options, not contract them.) No one finds it morally objectionable that children of musicians are often drawn to music, after all. Could parents try to push a child in a preferred direction? Certainly, but they do that already. It is unavoidable that our parents’ choices will influence us in ways we cannot control, and the power of genetic engineering is at most a difference in degree rather than in kind. (Plus, in practice, we will never have the sort of control that will let us create predestined automatons.) An unedited genome does not make you freer, and so a “right” to one is simply nonsensical.

Next, let’s turn to a much more serious issue: raising a child is not a simple matter that can be decided on the basis of individual liberty. A ward is not a mere extension of their guardian and their interests are not obviously concordant. Any time someone is acting on another’s behalf – especially on behalf of a child who can’t just walk away – there is a grave risk of abuse of power that it is wholly appropriate to regulate, even in a more libertarian society. We have no compunctions about taking children away from abusive parents. However, we still defer to parents by default. We don’t take children and raise them communally. Why? Because even if parents aren’t perfect, it isn’t obvious that anyone else will do better. Parents have more of an interest in their children than anyone else and are likelier to do do what’s best for them than anyone else. The foster system does not have a good reputation.

It seems straightforward to extend this (not total!) deference to parents from child-raising to before birth (we don’t usually legally regulate the behavior of pregnant women [certainly we shouldn’t], though social sanctions for risky behaviors may be appropriate) and even to before conception. To say that we don’t trust parents enough to use technology like genetic engineering responsibly implies that we’re far too trusting of parents after birth as well. One could make that argument of course, but I doubt that many would be comfortable following the logic of a ban on genetic engineering to its end. Parents want their children to be happy and to do well and if they use genetic engineering it will be mainly to that end. It won’t be perfect and smart regulations will be needed, but we already trust parents enough for a permissive approach to be commonsensical.

Let’s get more specific. Which traits will parents prefer? Most obviously greater intelligence, a lower predisposition to disorders such as depression, and a lower predisposition to violent behavior. (Along with curing diseases and perhaps selecting for appearance, but those are outside our discussion.) No doubt there will be experimentation and variability, but those changes would likely be the most common by far. And they are quite unambiguously positive! What a miracle it would be to cure severe depression! (It should go without saying that genes are hardly the only factor in determining phenotype, but as long as genes have influence, then genetic engineering can nudge traits in one direction or another to some degree.) Don’t get me wrong, people can lead wonderful, valuable lives without high IQs (and IQs are only an imperfect measure of intelligence), but all else equal greater intelligence does open up more opportunities in life – and not just economic ones. Intelligence offers problem solving abilities and a greater ease in navigating life’s difficulties. To repeat myself, not every change will be to the better, but the typical change will be, and that’s what matters.

So we can trust parents (along with reasonable regulations) to only use genetic engineering when it is likely to improve their children’s well-being. But what’s good for the individual is not always good for society. Are there negative externalities large enough to justify a ban? No. In fact, quite the opposite; there are likely to be great positive externalities. Common sense would suggest that a smarter, less aggressive, and emotionally healthier society would be a better place to live in and that’s what the evidence would suggest.

Hopefully the benefits of reducing crime – especially violent crime – are obvious. Fewer people killed, injured, scammed, taken advantage of, and so on. But beyond that there are social costs to crime. Locked doors, neighborhoods falling into ruin, children unable to play outside. These costs are hard to measure, but they are likely great.

Higher intelligence also creates positive externalities. Hive Mind, the recent book by Garrett Jones, proposes several avenues through which improving a nation’s average intelligence might improve its economic prospects (not the only issue, but a very important one). First, the more intelligent save more, which allows for a greater investment in capital over time. Second, the more intelligent are better able to cooperate with one another in complicated situations. This is borne out in experiments where IQ is positively correlated with cooperation in games. Third, they are more likely to have a good grasp of public policy and thus be better able to push for good governance. Fourth, that if people imitate their peers, a large number of smart, patient, and cooperative people could encourage others to behave better. I’d encourage everyone to read the book for further explication. While engineering intelligence isn’t certain to have these positive spillovers, they all seem eminently plausible.

Another concern might be that parents will waste effort in fighting for their child’s relative position rather than their absolute abilities. For instance, everyone trying to make their child taller than average. This is a risk, and perhaps one that deserves regulation. However, many traits are more like intelligence, where being better than average is ideal, but absolute ability is still beneficial. Thus, not all such selective spirals will be harmful.

Not only are there no major negative externalities associated with genetic engineering, there are likely to be large positive ones. So parents will choose what is best for their children and that will benefit everyone else. The case for any sort of prohibition is tremendously weak. We don’t know how a world-altering technology will reshape us. There will always be surprises, but that’s true of every far-reaching change. All we can do is assess things rationally step by step. And all reasonable arguments point in one direction: letting parents alter the genes of their children-to-be will benefit both their children and the world. Unsurprisingly, letting people choose for themselves is best.


Precautiones’ Opening Statement

The introductory statement only mentions eugenics in passing, so it falls to me to remind everyone of what eugenics meant in practice. I’m sure our readers are familiar with the basic story, but the human cost bears repeating at the start of every one of these discussions. A century ago politicians, the public, and virtually the entire scientific establishment had decided that they finally understood human nature (scientifically!), and that they had the means and the will to improve it (scientifically!). That they knew best. What happened when ideology gave sanction to power unconstrained by humanity? The predictable. “Between 1907 and 1963… over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenics legislation in the United States.” Classes of people were prevented from marrying. In Nazi Germany hundreds of thousands of the “unfit” were sterilized and tens of thousands were poisoned and murdered by the state. Please keep these numbers in the back of your mind. Imagine faces to go with them.

Now the issue before us is rather different at first blush from historical examples of eugenics. No one is proposing sterilization or death. Instead, we are told, the future shall be one of humane improvement, having learned from the mistakes of our predecessors. Those currently living won’t be touched. Instead we shall act upon the unborn, upon embryos. We will still have children, just different ones. Better ones. The heavy hand of government will be stayed. It will be a family decision. Would that it were so simple.

I’m not sure if I’d support this soft eugenics even if the rosy picture painted by supporters were plausible. Perhaps for some of the more serious genetic diseases. But it’s a moot point. Reality won’t match up to libertarian fantasias.

In no developed country does the government stay out of health care. Hell, in many countries the government is essentially the only health care provider. Even America’s private insurance markets are mandated to provide certain forms of coverage. Even if we assume that governments will avoid flexing their eugenic muscles as obviously as in the past, that’s still an incredible amount of power. Let’s say that in a few decades CRISPR or whatever becomes a viable way to alter the human germline. How expensive is it? Who pays for it? Who decides what alterations are acceptable and which are not? Who decides what alterations are acceptable if you can pay for it yourself, but not otherwise? Can you get providers outside of the government-run health care system? Will insurers be free to not cover pregnancy costs if your baby isn’t engineered? Will the government fund research only into areas of genetics that will benefit the state? How bad will the tragic, unanticipated fuck-ups be? I’m not going to provide answers to these questions, as the answers will vary by time and place. My point is that the government cannot help but have a massive say in any sort of new eugenics. The law doesn’t have to be de jure coercive to be coercive in fact.

How will the government decide which gene edits they or private insurers will pay for? Will it be what parents want? Much more likely it will be whatever the bureaucracy deems to be in the national benefit. Presumably there will be some compliance with public opinion, but how much is hard to say, since decisions will be made several levels removed from democratic input. “Which allele will increase economic output 20 years from now?” you can almost hear them ask. Over time there will undoubtedly be drift towards inculcating greater docility and obedience, perhaps under the guise of reducing violence. And over generations will control become ever easier? (I’m not implying any conscious conspiracy theory. Complex systems can have direction.) I understand the impulse to let parents choose, and I value reproductive freedom. But is that freedom of choice realistically going to be an option in our radically imperfect world? I think not. The government will wield its power while never forcing anyone to do anything.

So far I’ve assumed that genetic engineering will become cheap enough to be provided broadly, but let’s think about inequality if that’s not the case. Certainly medical costs aren’t guaranteed to go down. The rich might pay out of pocket, but that’s hardly reassuring. Making a few better off won’t be some simple Pareto improvement. How much mobility can we expect in a world where the upper class has remade itself into an upper caste? Even if the differences aren’t large, will the engineered wall themselves off from the rest of us? If the promise of democracy is thwarted all too often now, will the future even bother with democracy as a fig leaf when most people are deemed unfit? This scenario seems like science fiction cliché, but we could easily be blundering towards it.

And let’s not just think of access within nations, let’s think of the gap between rich and poor countries. The developed world is the first to afford new technology. Might the first world give itself yet another head start that lets it exploit the third, using even greater economic clout as a political cudgel? If genetic engineering is seen as a sensitive technology that can’t be exported, will nations unable to start their own programs be locked out permanently? Again, I’m not prognosticating, I just want to keep emphasizing that there are countless ways this could go wrong and be harmful on net.

Hopefully I’ve established to my reader’s satisfaction that parents will never have any simple freedom to choose, simply by nature of the problem. But if I haven’t convinced you, let’s think about what parents would choose if they were unconstrained. It isn’t at all obvious that they would do what’s best for their child. Why wouldn’t they do what’s best for themselves? Why not create a smart, hardworking child without an ounce of real independence? Someone easy to deal with. There’s no gene for filial piety, but I promise that people will look. As with bureaucrats, there needn’t be a malicious or selfish thought in anyone’s head. Yet somehow people explicitly trying to do the right thing so often find that the right thing aligns with their self-interest. That’s the part of human nature that will thwart any attempt at improving itself.

What about the disabled or those who are simply different in some way? Between 70 and 85 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. There aren’t yet tests for traits like autism, but probably the numbers would be similar if there were. And eugenics will be much less difficult, less of an emotional ordeal. Granted that some disorders bring little to anyone but pain and tragedy, but do we trust parents to distinguish between those disorders and ones that will simply make life more difficult for them or make them look bad? I don’t, and the numbers for Down syndrome back me up. Classes of people with different experiences, different ways of viewing the world that greatly enrich us all will simply cease. Who truly wants such a monoculture? How do you measure that loss? Who has the right to winnow humanity?

One final point. If these traits we’re selecting for work in opposition to one another – for instance, what if the easiest way to increase intelligence also decreases altruism – then how will we balance those trade-offs? I suspect that efficiency and productivity will be the dominant considerations in practice. Would we be able to resist the pressure if that’s what others chose?

In summary, individual choice is not possible to any real degree. The state will have great power which it could use for its own ends, even if it avoids the crude cruelties of earlier eugenics and even without ill-intent. The poor could wind up locked out permanently. Who knows what such a society would look like. And even if parents are left to make some decisions themselves they won’t reliably do so with their child’s interests at heart. It would be too easy to move towards this future step-by-step and so an outright ban of all human genetic engineering is called for.

Moderator’s comments for Round 1

These are prompts for further discussion and will be updated after each round.

  • Can parents be trusted to make the right choices for their children?
    • Round 1: What further evidence might be brought to bear? For instance, do parents accurately guess how happy the life of someone with a given disability is likely to be?
  • Is there a right to an unaltered genome?
  • Will positive or negative externalities predominate?
    • Round 1: Libertes has argued that there are positive externalities to genetic engineering, while Precautiones has pointed to negative ramifications such as loss of human diversity, permanent inequality, and de facto government control of reproduction. Are negative or positive trends likely to predominate?
  • How much freedom from government intervention is possible or desirable?
    • Round 1: Are the practical limits to the libertarian approach listed by Precautiones – state takeover, the poor lacking access in practice – real? If so, are they avoidable?
(Source for header image, Source for second image)

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