[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Precautiones’ first reply

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

by David Severa

The moderator asked for evidence that parents do or do not act with their children’s interests at heart. While I could point to innumerable examples of selfish or cruel or violent parenting, I suppose that wouldn’t be enough. There’s no doubt that many parents would abuse eugenics, but the question is how many? Would the bad outweigh the good? Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of direct evidence because this is a problem we’ve mostly not faced. But there are analogies. Remember how I mentioned that a large majority of fetuses with Down syndrome were aborted? The corollary is that “When nonpregnant people are asked if they would have a termination if their fetus tested positive, [only] 23–33% said yes”. We can’t trust what people say they would do until they actually have to take action. Ignore polls where respondents say they’d never ever CRISPR their kids. Frankly cynicism is warranted. In the privacy of a clinic, people will be more hard-headed. I won’t say that most parents would consciously choose anything harmful, only that it’s easy to justify what’s in your self-interest.

Parents will also have to consider what other typical parents are likely considering. It isn’t the only think people care about, but having children who can compete socially and economically is valued and those are traits where a mastery of zero-sum competition is crucial. (Yes, positive-sum cooperation is also important.) There are ineradicable benefits to being on top of a hierarchy. It may be true now that intelligence is correlated with cooperation and law-abidingness, but intelligence matched with ruthlessness could be selected for. Or ability to cooperate in small groups at the expense of everyone else. Not that our level of control will be so precise, but one could imagine trends in those directions as people copy what seems to work. What if parents feel that they have no choice but to cut out the niceness genes (so to speak) just so their kids have a chance at competing? If everyone knows that everyone else is doing this…

Libertes wondered “whether there might be unavoidable trade-offs between, say, increasing intelligence and increasing altruism. If there are, then the technology will simply be less effective than expected and thus less of a reason for concern.” This is wrong. If there are major trade-offs then eugenics will be less effective than hoped, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. What if improvements in intelligence necessarily come at a cost to altruism and parents choose intelligence en masse? Such trade-offs may wreck the alignment of parental and societal interests that Libertes needs for his arguments to work. What if we can’t have everything? Why wouldn’t parents choose the selfish option? It would be impossible to coordinate against. And then we have a generation of bright kids with weak consciences. Of course that’s just an example. So little is understood about the brain that we can’t say what will be possible. Still, such negative externalities would clearly undercut the purported benefits of genetic engineering.

Again, eugenics can lead to harmful competition that degrades the happiness of the enhanced and everyone else. That alone doesn’t justify prohibition, as prohibition might be ineffective. However, a ban may be more effective than you think, as the government could ban not just clinics, but all research into genetic engineering on humans. Without a detailed understanding of the genetic architecture of the mind, and without practicing on human embryos in particular, there would be no doctors with the ability to do anything. Such a ban wouldn’t be simple, but withdrawal of government funding would be an effective stick. You can’t have a back-alley billion-dollar research program. No need to arrest worried mothers-to-be.

Now, Libertes has devoted a lot of words to say that a robust private market in eugenic treatments is possible. Barring unanticipated problems, his sketch seems feasible enough on its own. But the question is not just whether you could make a functioning market based on individual choices in theory, but how much control the government will take in practice. A proof of concept is insufficient. For instance, in vitro fertilization is elective. However, in the US fifteen states mandate that insurers cover IVF for infertile couples. In the UK the NHS not only covers IVF, it covers pre-implantation genetic screening, where couples at risk of passing on certain heritable diseases screen embryos and discard those with the disease. No one has to have IVF, but non-coercive subsidies will still alter behavior. If one set of genetic treatments is covered, but you have to pay full price for anything else, what will people choose? What if it’s all you can afford? What if the government bans some lines of research but not others? That would be more distorting than a total ban. Libertes’ analysis is fatally flawed; he shows that there could be a market without intervention, when he needed to show that a market could resist intervention. To show that he will have to make entirely different arguments. And in fact his arguments about positive externalities to society would give cover to government interference under a paternalist guise.

One last point. Libertes argues that there is no right to an unedited genome, as having genes selected by one’s parents is no more coercive than having genes chosen by chance. I’m not sure if that’s right – we don’t know just how precise our control might be – but I won’t contest it here. Rights talk is too often circular and agreement is rarely reached. Much better to stick to more concrete harms.

To recap: freely chosen eugenics – to the limited extent it’s possible – would harm both children and society, but the state will have its hand in everything and it will pursue its own interests, which won’t align with the rest of humanity. (The government could clamp down on vicious cycles of competition, but I think we both agree that the cost would be too high.) An outright ban of all of this is feasible. So why not?

Moderator’s comments for Round 2

  • 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?
    • Round 2: Both sides agree that framing this discussion in terms of rights is unhelpful.
  • 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?
    • Round 2: Both of you have identified possible positive and negative externalities that might be produced, but is it even possible to weigh these against each other with so little evidence right now?
  • 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?
    • Round 2: Both of you assume that government regulation of genetic engineering would necessarily be harmful, but perhaps you could flesh out what those harms would be. Is democracy really so inadequate a check as you both seem to think?
  • Is a total ban on even mere research possible?
    • Round 2: Does this include research on genetic diseases?
  • Trade-offs
    • Round 2: Are the trade-offs between traits Precautiones discussed likely to be real? Is the vicious cycle of competition? Can we know that right now?


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