Julian Savulescu on Why We Should Play God

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu has a knack for provocation. Take human cloning. He says most of us would readily accept it if it benefited us. As for eugenics—creating smarter, stronger, more beautiful babies—he believes we have an ethical obligation to use advanced technology to select the best possible children.

So the idea that we could play god and tamper with the laws of nature, creating things that wouldn’t otherwise exist, is a red herring?

We’re playing god every day. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, the natural state for human beings is a life that’s nasty, brutish, and short. We play god when we vaccinate. We play god when we give women pain relief during labor. The challenge is to decide how to change the course of nature, not whether to change it. Our whole life is entirely unnatural. The correction of infertility is interfering in nature. Contraception is interfering in the most fundamental aspect of nature.

But using condoms has nowhere near the ethical complications of altering the genetic makeup of your future baby.

You alter the genetic makeup of your future baby when you smoke or drink alcohol. Viruses alter the human genome. So why would you single out one intentional act aimed at producing a beneficial outcome from all these other events that have far less beneficial outcomes? In my view, we should not only use tests to look for genes so a child is not disposed to a major genetic disorder, like Thalassemia or Cystic Fibrosis or Down syndrome, but also to look at genes correlated with greater advantages in life. My argument is we ought to select children who have opportunities for better lives. Most people say that’s fine when it comes to diseases, but we shouldn’t interfere in nature once you get into the healthy range.

This raises the specter of tinkering with our genes. You could create smarter, stronger, more beautiful children.

Indeed, you could. In my view, we should choose genes if those characteristics affect a person’s happiness. A rising percentage of kids today are on Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. But that’s not because there’s suddenly been some epidemic of ADHD. It’s because you’re crippled as a human being if you have poor impulse control and can’t concentrate long enough, if you can’t defer small rewards now for larger rewards in the future. Having self-control is extremely important to strategic planning, and Ritalin enhances that characteristic in children at the low end of impulse control. Now, if you were able to test for poor impulse control in embryos, I believe we should select ones with a better chance of having more choices in life, whether you want to be a plumber, a taxi driver, a lawyer, or the president.

It’s one thing to talk about impulse control and quite another to enhance the intelligence of a baby. Doesn’t this raise a whole new level of ethical concerns?

It does raise another level of ethical concerns, but we already aim to enhance intelligence through education. Computers and the Internet are also cognitive enhancers. We give children food supplements and better diets to enhance cognitive ability. So why should we treat a genetic mechanism differently than a dietary supplement or some external technology like the Internet? The only difference is gene therapy is really risky, and that’s why we don’t do it. But if it becomes safe, there’s no difference in ethical terms between gene therapy and any other sort of biological or social intervention. If science gives us the opportunity of improving people’s lives, we should use it.

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Julian Savulescu is an Australian philosopher and bioethicist.

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