Thursday, May 07, 2015

Amateur philosophy and the superhuman

The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science | Practical Ethics

I see via Jason Soon that there is a bit of a push back against the backlash in Nature and Science about the Chinese who conducted gene editing experiments on (non viable) human embryos.  The article above is one of them.

Now I understand, to a degree, their complaint that the Chinese research was not on viable embryos, so there was no risk of harm in that particular experiment.  And if anything, its results serve as a warning that such editing is not reliable enough to try on viable human embyros, so in that sense it could be welcomed as showing that the dangers from trying to do such work are real.

However, it is pretty clear that the defenders go further - they actually want to see human genome edited for improvement, seeing it as our science fiction-y, transhumanist destiny.   The rest of us are sticks in the mud (probably Christians) standing in the way of progress.   All very Nietzschean. 

But you really have to wonder about the dubious way the guys who wrote the article linked above deal with the question of responsibility in this paragraph:
Imagine that I am a scientist. I have a promising candidate treatment
that could save the lives of 30 million people per year. I decide not to
continue the research. I am responsible for the deaths of those 30
million people if my research would have led to a cure.
This is just a silly attempted extension of the concept of  "responsibility" if you ask me, and reeks of amateur, late night bar room philosophy.   How could they have left that line in and not expect it to detract from their credibility?

The desire to improve humans developmentally is not per se wrong - ensuring adequate nutrition and vitamins for mothers to prevent avoidable problems is a good thing.  But the obvious solution to eliminating the worst genetic disorders is by either not having babies at all once it is discovered you are carrying a dangerous gene, or at least screening embryos for the defect.  Neither carries the risk of inadvertent harm caused by what is likely to be the inevitable imprecision of seeking to repair individual genes, and it's not as if humanity doesn't have enough healthy gene lines to keep the species going.

As for the desire to improve the germ line - you're a philosophical amateur if you can't acknowledge the ethical question it raises as to which human qualities deserve enhancement or removal.  

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