Genetically Modified Babies (and moral duties, harm, and moral disagreement)

The Washington Post reports that the FDA has begun reviewing a process of canceling out genetically inherited diseases by creating embryos with three genetic parents. While the article explains the science and the history of the process quite well, it fails to go into detail about the “ethical issues” posed by such a process, though this term is mentioned frequently. What are the ethical issues posed by such a process? Designer babies seem to be the main concern here, and while loss of genetic diversity is troubling, the process under review is only meant to eliminate the possibility of disease being passed on, such that the process need not end in designer babies, and as slippery slope arguments are wanting, we should put this argument aside as not the main ethical concern.

The interesting ethical issue here, I think, is whether potential but yet unknown harms provide a stronger reason against an action than potential and probable benefits do as a reason for that action. As W.D. Ross and others have noted, the duty to prevent harm is more stringent than the duty to create benefits, and for this reason, we might think that we should err on the side of caution and not go forward with the process due to potential harmful mutations in future generations.

But of course, the benefit to be gained is the removal of harm – the potential removal of a harmful disease or condition. Thus, it is not simply the weighing of a duty to prevent harm against a duty to promote well-being, but the weighing of a duty to prevent harm against a duty to prevent harm. Now we are weighing the prevention of a potential harm in the distant future against the prevention of harms in the near future. Our attention should not be drawn to differences in occurrence, after all, our generation and the potentially impacted future generations are just as deserving of being free from harm. The important difference is that it is reasonable to assume, given testing on primates, that the process under review will likely remove harms, whereas it is very much uncertain whether the process will cause long-term harms such that not using the process will prevent harm. Given this, we should consider going forward with the process.

The crucial question here is what exactly is the prevention of disease? Is it the removal of harm, or the creation of well-being? The answer to this question has a direct impact on the answer to our questions regarding the ethicality of such a process. As disease is a harm, the prevention of disease is the prevention of harm. Nevertheless, those that are worried about the “naturalness” of such a process might consider the prevention of disease through this process a creation of well-being, because diseases are the natural order of things, such that to remove them is to go above and beyond the claims of man, showing him beneficence.

So there is room for debate as to whether this process is the prevention of harm or the creation of benefit. But this is a question about the nature of the action, not about what we ought to do, such that we can see that this moral disagreement is caused by disagreement about the non-moral fact of whether the action is the prevention of harm or creation of benefit, not whether we ought to prevent harm or create benefit. Thus, those anti-realists who posit that there wouldn’t be moral disagreements if there were objective truths about morality (the argument from disagreement) can be answered by our observation that there can be moral disagreements with objective moral facts if there is disagreement on the non-moral facts of the case.


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  1. #1 by guymax on March 1, 2014 - 10:01 am

    I find it all very depressing. If we can’t even decide what morality is, or whether there are objective or general moral truths, then we are not likely to make a sensible decision about the genetic engineering of human embryos.

    I’d just leave it to nature to deal with inherited diseases but there’s money to be made here, and the morality or even the stupidity of interfering with our own genes is not an issue. If it can be done, and if we can sell it, then it will happen. Makes me wonder how evolution worked before we came along to improve the system.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on March 2, 2014 - 1:02 pm

      An interesting perspective. Perhaps our understanding of the domain of evolution will have to expand to include technological development. But if we can save peoples’ lives, on a practical if not moral level, then why shouldn’t we? Because it’s different from the ways things have been, of standard biological evolution? That doesn’t seem like a good reason at all to me.

  2. #3 by guymax on March 3, 2014 - 8:40 am

    I think there is a reason why Nature does not save lives in the way that’s being suggested, and that it is for the future benefit of our genes. Technological dependency is a big part of the problem. Farmers become increasingly dependent on the agro-chemical companies for their genetic stock, rather than being self-sufficient, and perhaps one day having a healthy baby will actually require interference with the embryo, probably at an expensive Monsanto clinic, since the healthy stock has been bred out of existence.

    But the morality or practicality is not an issue. If there’s a profit in it then it will happen.

    Sorry, but I have a jaundiced view of these scientific ‘solutions’. They are usually just the creation of a new problem that requires yet another solution that creates yet another ….

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on March 3, 2014 - 4:50 pm

      Interesting, always glad to hear a different perspective. I can certainly see your reason for concern.

      The morality of an action is always at issue. But you’re right that we might ignore the moral reasons involved in moving forward with such procedures.

      • #5 by guymax on March 3, 2014 - 8:47 pm

        Thanks awestin. I might have stared an argument there. Skillfully avoided.

      • #6 by ausomeawestin on March 3, 2014 - 9:34 pm

        Lol thanks, you’re right, I sensed I do not know enough about the topic to wage war. Although I talked about the morality of the procedures we have been discussing, too much is unknown for me to have any certainty about whether such procedures are a good idea all things considered. As a result, I’m tentative in embracing the procedures; your worries strike me as valid.

  1. The Argument From Disagreement (and moral vs. non-moral facts, realism and intuitionism) | ausomeawestin

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