Bioethicist Claims Embryonic Genetic Engineering Is “Moral Obligation”

With this writer’s hat tip to Slashdot, now comes The Telegraph to report that Oxford professor Julian Savulescu — who is also editor-in-chief of Journal of Medical Ethics — argues that it’s a “moral obligation” to use genetic engineering on embryos to screen out “genetic flaws” that contribute to lower intelligence, higher aggression or sociopathic behaviors.

Attentive readers will no doubt recall that this isn’t the first time that our friends in the bioethics discipline have articulated positions that fall significantly far afield of mainstream thought; just this past February, a brief editorial in (surprise) the Journal of Medical Ethics suggested that there’s a right to after-birth abortion until the time the infant is capable of higher forms of self-awareness, because newborns — being incapable of true moral agency — have no moral standing and therefore enjoy no moral rights.

Outrage over the conclusions advanced by the high priests of bioethics is easy to muster; less simple is fixing the underlying problem. The most significant hurdle with bioethics is that it’s not a discipline of philosophy — it’s simply a normative subdiscipline of biology. Thus, the scope and methods of “pure” moral philosophy rarely seem to rate. The goal of the bioethicists, by and large, is to advance the industry, not to advance clear thinking about difficult subjects. Indeed, as I opined last week, it’s a shame that the real philosophers spend so much time playng language and logic games that the practical questions about what to do and why get outsourced to industry experts who add “ethics” to their title but otherwise espouse an industry- or ideology-specific worldview that feels no different than a press release.

Bioethics isn’t ethics. Bioethics is the practice of making value judgments about controversial or disputed behaviors, using knowledge and principles and assumptions that come from within the life sciences. Many bioethicists receive training in abstract moral philosophy, but their bread and butter comes from within medicine or biology or zoology or a cognate discipline. And it shows in what moral principles they espouse: Much of what passes as high-level, peer-reviewed bioethical thought uses the same simplistic tools taught to undergrad philosophy majors. When you set aside moral psychology, faith-based reasoning and alternative moral paradigms in favor of a set-piece analysis that focuses on “agency” and “autonomy” and “paternalism” and treats human life in any form as an instrumental rather than intrisnsic good, you arrive at a default position that’s a better fit for an undergrad term paper than a serious piece of moral reasoning.

Despite Savulescu’s claims to the contrary, you cannot assume that a human person — even in embryonic form — may be tinkered with on the genetic level unless you first articulate an ironclad ethical argument that justifies what he presupposes from the outset. When you look at human life and assume you can change it without its consent, simply because you increase the odds of a good outcome for other people, you are committing an egregious error in reasoning. You’re assuming the validity of the input based on the desirability of the output.

A good philosopher would know this. Unfortuantely, on bioethics questions, many of them are distressingly AWOL.

The rest of us, then, can and should reject the instrumentalism of contemporary bioethics and assert as a first principle that a person is a person and the integrity of one’s genetic code should be privileged — unless, of course, someone arrives at a thoughtful argument that justifies, rather than merely asserts, a contrary position.

[EDIT 2012-09-02 18:20 EDT: Slight phrasing edits; recast last sentence to include missing clause.]

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