Genetic Moral Enhancement

Genetic engineering is undoubtedly a sticky subject, one which raises immediate images of designer children, ultra-athletes or scholars handpicked by their parents to be the best. Most often when we discuss the bioethical nature of genetic engineering, we think of a child’s sex, eye color, height, intelligence. However, we must not forget that a person’s physicality is not the only thing determined by their DNA; many of our behavioral tendencies root from the depths of our genetics as well.

Here is where the question of genetic engineering becomes even trickier to answer: what if we could control for morality in our children? What if human offspring were kinder, more empathetic and compassionate, not because of any lesson taught to them by their parent, but because of a pre-selected genotype predisposing them to these desired qualities? Would this be permissible, or perhaps even obligatory, in modern society?

Faust suggests that as there is a genetic basis to most, if not all, complex human behaviors, especially personality. While environment also has something to say in the development of a child, there is no escaping DNA. With this in mind, she suggests that eventually, it might be possible for couples to select a haplotype predisposing their child to moral behavior: a MoralKinder haplotype (MK+). While this would not guarantee moral behavior in all situations, there would be an increased and statistically significant chance that the child would behave better in most.

Sandel cites many problems with genetic engineering and cloning: lack of autonomy for the individual whose genes are being altered, commodification of human traits, the threat of discrimination in society. It seems, though, that most of these arguments apply to physical genetic engineering. Could we call it dehumanizing if we selected for a haplotype which would increase our children’s humanity? Would the moral problems associated with physical genetic engineering not be at least partially dissolved if genetic moral enhancement were implemented?

Perhaps this issue is not as clear-cut as it seems, though. For some, this seeming increase of humanity appears as a threat to free will and human nature. Sandel points out that what we see as perfecting human nature “threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will” (103). Thus the possibility remains that by attempting to whittle down one end of the behavioral spectrum, humans are narrowing down their natural capacities as opposed to becoming the “masters of nature” (Sandel 103). Additionally, some argue that adding ease to the process of learning morality may devalue it.

However, Faust argues that selecting for MK+ would improve societal morality on the whole and would not remove the free will of the child. A child with a high moral capacity is like a child with a high intelligence quotient; she is not forced to make a certain, arguably better choice, but will certainly be more likely to. And again, a higher IQ does not devalue mathematical or literary abilities in our society; on the contrary, these gifts are praised.

While genetic moral enhancement is still both controversial and fully hypothetical, it provides interesting insight into the direction which genetic engineering might move. Perhaps we can use such an example to look at the ways in which the science of genetic engineering could improve our society, and use this to consider the morality of this issue.


Works Cited

Sandel, Michael J. “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering.” Arguing About Bioethics. Ed. Stephen Holland. London:   Routledge, 2012. 93-104. Print.

Faust, Halley S. “Should We Select for Genetic Moral Enhancement? A Thought Experiment Using the MoralKinder (MK+) Haplotype – Springer.” Should We Select for Genetic Moral Enhancement? A Thought Experiment Using the MoralKinder (MK+) Haplotype. Springer Science, 01 Dec. 2008. Web. 04 Feb. 2014.



18 thoughts on “Genetic Moral Enhancement

  1. I am hesitant to believe that a “gene for morality” could be discovered, let alone, that a specific genetic make-up could impose morality in an individual. Morality is simply too complex to be associated with genetics. I believe that our genetic disposition gives us the capacity to understand what exactly morality is. Morality is defined as “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior” (Merriam-Webster, Just as the phenotype of an individual varies, morals can vary from person to person. While there may exist a possibility to find a genetic make-up that enhances our understanding of morality, who decides what is morally “good and what is morally “bad”? Sure there are beliefs that people hold to be morally good across cultures: autonomy, beneficence, utility and justice, but to what degree do we impose these principles in society? I do not think genetics holds this answer.

  2. Selecting for morality in human beings? What an interesting concept. Let’s say that it were possible to give a child some predisposition to moral behavior. Is it moral to impose upon individuals a trait that so affects the way they view the world? It would not completely rid the child of free will, but it would heavily influence the decisions they make. Increasing the height of offspring is one thing; a genetic enhancement that affects behavior, though, is one that I see as especially immoral.

  3. I firmly believe that morality is subjective; it varies from person to person and society to society. If a specific gene was isolated for morality, I do not believe that it would have the support of the larger, specifically international, community. Even if the majority of the people in the United States believed that a specific gene could induce better, more “moral” decisions, this would not be agreed upon nationwide. Moral codes differ greatly, specifically across cultures and various religions.This is proven by the fact that laws vary between states, and more drastically, between different countries. Therefore, if countries around the world were to isolate genes that they felt induced morality, the genes that they select are likely to be vastly different. Therefore, I believe that this component of cloning should not be further explored as a potential legal usage of cloning, as the results can not be universalized.

  4. Like many universal things, morals are inherently linked to society and vary from culture to culture. People learn what the “norm” is, and what is socially accepted by growing up in society, this is why children have to be taught. Moral views have been able to change over time. I think the role of environment plays a huge role in dictating what “morals” actually are.
    Even if the intention of increasing a child’s humanity is moral, the act of choosing a child’s genes, especially ones that affect their personality, usurps their autonomy. If that is considered immoral, and an act of immorality is dehumanizing, then it would still be dehumanizing. I thought your statement about the value of morality was interesting: “Adding the ease to the process of learning morality may devalue it”…could it also raise the bar for morality? These children, born with “heightened morality”, would they seek a higher level of morality and create an upward shift in what is considered moral today? Although there is much agreement on the fundamentals and big ideas of morality, as we have seen there is also much uncertainty and disagreement on topics of morality. If children were designed to be “more moral” than others, a greater gap between the already stratified views on morality could be created.

  5. Your concept of morality through genetic enhancement is fascinating. While I’m also skeptical that such suggested methods would ever be possible, I think it would be interesting if genetic enhancement could make people less likely to be hateful, violent, etc. As you mentioned, these people would not be forced to make any certain choice but would be more likely to make a choice tailored to how they were genetically enhanced. While a proposition like this is most likely too complex for actual implementation, I think it’s still worthwhile to ask the question: what if we could somehow genetically influence a person to have less violent or hateful tendencies?

  6. This is an extremely interesting point that you bring up. I think often genetic enhancement is associated with physical characteristics but not so much with emotional characteristics. I’m not sure if I buy that there are specific genes that control these aspects of the personality, in addition to the fact that a lot of one’s emotional characteristics come from the environment they developed in and less from their genetics. However, if this was possible I think it would add a very interesting other argument to the debate on genetic enhancement.
    I do still agree that even changing a child’s personality for the better would be a violation of their free will. No child should have to be enhanced to be kinder or more moral. I personally believe that if the parents’ put the resources they would have spent into obtaining genetic enhancement for their child into raising them correctly, enhancement to the personality would not be as necessary. It seems a little crazy to assume that your unborn child is not kind or moral enough for society, to the point that their genes need to be changed.

  7. The hypothetical of choosing one’s morals is an interesting one and sounds like if possible, it could have positive effects on society. However, in thinking of this in terms of Sandel’s argument, there might be problems with this practice. Sandel mentions that many people think there is nothing inherently wrong with using genetic engineering to cure disease, and inherently there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with choosing morals either. If we could lower the amount of people that end up to be murderers or rapists or thieves, that would be great. The problem I think, however, arises when we get into morals that do not necessarily deal with some of the more greatly held morals (ex. do not kill others). For example, if we could pinpoint morals that allow people to feel a certain way about abortion or gay rights, we would see greatly differing results in what people would consider to be the moral view regarding those issues. Additionally, if this science were to fall into the hands of a society like that of World War II Germany or any society that has problems with genocide, we could see people being produced to think that genocide is okay, and this would go exactly against what the intention of pinpointing moral genes.

  8. You state, “What if we could control our offspring”. In my opinion, this seems to be too close to playing God. God and man are not the same and we shouldn’t try to imitate God. Also stated was that, Sandel mentions that there is a threat for discrimination which is pertinent to understand identity. Would clones be discriminated against if they were to realize that they were a clone? We already have enough issues with discrimination, so I really don’t think that we should clone. There are too many unforeseeable consequences that could become obstacles in the future. We don’t the dangers of why could happen if we were to clone. Another important thing to note is if we desperately needed to, would the process be reversible? If so, would that not be the same as killing a human being?

  9. I appreciate your fresh perspective on the use of genetic enhancement. I agree that things should shift away from aesthetic superiority, and even physical superiority (more muscular builds, etc.,) towards moral superiority. This is a concept that would indeed help society whether implemented to one person, five people, or one thousand people. The benefits the individuals gain are by nature beneficial to other members of society. For those commenting on unforeseeable consequences of this, I would be interested in knowing what they may be in further discussion, because simply a lack of possibly negative evidence should not mean that the argument is invalid.

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