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.
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.