A few years ago it was discovered that bacteria can protect themselves against viruses by cutting the viruses’ DNA at specific positions. The discovery is the basis for new, easier and more precise ways to make changes in the genome. Researchers have begun to talk about “cutting and pasting” in the genome; about “editing” the genome.
The new gene-editing technique has been applied to plant breeding. But it can, of course, be applied elsewhere too. And as often is the case, the issues appear extra controversial when applications to humans are considered.
I read an intellectual debate between a proponent of therapeutic use of the technique on humans (Julian Savulescu), and an opponent (Margaret Somerville). (You find it here.) The opponent used an analogy to summarize her position, which I cannot resist commenting upon here on the Ethics Blog. Here is the analogy (as I render it):
- Today we are acutely aware that we must take responsibility for our environment, for the physical ecosystem. But the same can be said of our metaphysical or moral ecosystem. We must care about our values, beliefs, attitudes, principles and narratives. Genetically editing a human embryo, perhaps to remove a disease gene, may have good consequences from an individual perspective. But it threatens the moral ecosystem at its roots: it contradicts the respect for human life.
Say what you want, but it is a dramatic analogy! Maybe a little too dramatic. For essentially the same threat has been depicted many times before, when new forms of biotechnology appeared on the horizon. If this kind of threat was real, morality should lie in ruins since long ago. But we quickly forget and it is always only the latest techniques that Threaten Morality at its Foundation.
I believe that the idea of a major technological threat to morality is based on intellectualizing both technology and morality. One attaches enormous significance to the fact that aspects of the technology can be described with certain words, such as “editing” or “designing.” The description, ”designing a child,” sounds like it logically clashed with another intellectualization – of morality as a system of propositions about what a “person” is, about what “respect” is, and about what is “right and wrong.”
The idea of an apocalyptic threat is thus based on reading the new technique and morality literally, so that it sounds as if the technique contradicted the basic tenets of morality.
Is there nothing to worry about, then? Should we not care about important values? Of course we should. My point is that in practice this looks differently than it verbally sounds like.
When new biotechnologies are implemented in society and put to use, this occurs in specific practical contexts where there are recognized problems that one wants to solve or treat. These applications are regulated, ethically and legally.
In vitro fertilization (IVF), another technique, is embedded in its specific contexts. Within these contexts, the technique solves problems for people. But it hardly threatens morality by, on some general and verbal level, contradicting the basic tenets of a moral system – such as “the respect for human life.” Rather, the technology has become a new way to concretely respect people and take their problems seriously.
The practical aspects disappear in the intellectualization of the issues, with its focus on words and theses. But it is the living contexts we have to take responsibility for. That is where we find the respect and the disrespect. That is where the problem lies.
Some moral problems are just false readings, overinterpretations of words.