Technique and Eugenics: my response to the question Jon Holmlund asks about gene editing

Jon Holmlund has asked in this blog whether germ-line modification for the purpose of eliminating genetic diseases (NOT for enhancement), if it could be done safely and equitably, would be ethically acceptable. I argue no, for at least three reasons: we humans are virtually incapable of limiting our use of technology, the technology of gene editing is inescapably eugenic, and we humans are incorrigibly eugenic. Following is an extremely abbreviated explanation of my argument.

First, there is no chance that this technology could be limited to the narrow usage Jon describes. We like to think that technology is value-neutral, that it’s just tools; so maybe we could just choose to use this tool for a particular good purpose without using it to create a Gattaca or a Brave New World in which we witness the Abolition of Man. But as Jacques Ellul has pointed out, “It is useless to think that a distinction can be made between [a] technique and its use, for techniques have specific social and psychological consequences independent of our desires. There can be no room for moral considerations in their use…” (Fasching, The Thought of Jacues Ellul, 18). Ellul called this characteristic of technique monism: a technique is inevitably applied everywhere it can be applied.

Second, as Neil Postman has written in Technopoly, every new technique carries within itself an idea, an ideology; the idea in the technique of germ-line modification, as in all genetic technologies, is eugenics. In medicine especially, we see again and again that technology is used “as defined by the capabilities of the technology . . . even contrary to the best interests of the sick person.” (Eric Cassell, “The sorcerer’s broom: medicine’s rampant technology.” Hastings Center Report, 1993;23:32-39.). One need not look far in medicine to see examples of technology employed in a manner defined not by patients’ best interests but by the technology itself: robotic surgery, CPR, or all of the permutations of infertility treatment.

Third, we humans seem to be incurably eugenic. From Plato’s Republic to Nazi Germany to today’s prenatal clinics, we pursue eugenics despite all warnings from history about what the inevitable conclusion of such policy is.

To recapitulate: In a technology-worshipping society such as ours, the “choice” to use a technique is virtually automatic. The idea at the heart of gene editing is eugenics. Our species, for whatever reason, possesses strong eugenic tendencies. Thus, since this technology could be used for eugenic purposes to edit genes to create “designer babies,” it will be used for those purposes. Therefore, I do not believe that it is ethical to pursue research in this area for the ostensibly good purposes that Jon postulates.

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Jon Holmlund

Very nice, Joe. Thank you for taking up my challenge. I do think that your line of argument is worth unpacking further, by us and other fellow contributors and commenters on this blog, in future posts and comments. I think you are right, first, to urge us not to forget Ellul, someone whose thinking I, for one, have not leaned on enough. And I am a big fan of Postman’s work. I need to mull over counter-arguments a bit more, and may not get to much this week, while traveling. I do note that you–correctly, in my view–focus on the… Read more »