Thursday 31 January 2008

Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People

John Harris

Despite looking like a popular science book, Enhancing Evolution is in fact a work of popular philosophy. John Harris, the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, aims to make the moral case to allow augmentation (genetic and otherwise) of human beings. He does do a decent enough job of marshalling the arguments for taking the ethical brakes off – systematically pulling apart many of the numerous philosophical objections to ‘playing God’.

Harris argues that the ‘enhancements’ feared by ethicists aren’t really qualitatively distinguishable from things we’ve been doing for years; curing disease or using technology. For example, quite what the qualitative difference between laser eye surgery and other potentially more radical enhancement technologies is hardly clear, and Harris scores some goals against the moralistic and irrational responses of other philosophers.

Also, refreshingly, his argument is often based on a defence of individual liberty – that people should have bodily autonomy, even where this is considered ‘unnatural’ by some, and that parents rather than the state should have the final say in the fate of their own offspring, ‘designer’ or otherwise. The burden of proof should lie with those who advocate coercion to stop these techniques, rather than the other way around.

Another argument usefully punctured is the cod-socialist argument that enhancement would create new inequalities, and so should be curtailed until it can be usefully implemented for everyone. While this sounds nice, it’s in fact a recipe for conservatism – goods that start off as playthings of the rich generally end up more widely available; and as we’re still waiting for real equality, this sort of argument would leave us sans cars, anti-retrovirals and jumbo jets. Choosing not to enhance is as much a moral choice as choosing to enhance – those advocating restraint have as much as a case to answer as their opponents.

But for a book whose introduction quotes Marx’s famous aphorism that philosophers interpret the world, but ‘the point is to change it’, it all comes across as a bit… well… philosophical. The narrative can meander frustratingly at times, as Harris gets sidetracked on occasionally rather pedantic points of morals and philosophical methodology. Even when he is engaged in the debate, his attacks are sometimes go off course; after taking apart the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s laughable ‘consultation’ and lambasting its bizarre risk aversion, he ends up detouring into a discussion of the risks and benefits sex selection and the chance of non-existence from the perspective of potential embryos.

This over-philosophical approach also means that Harris largely fails to engage with the broader social and political trends that frame the argument. Conservative attitudes towards technological advancement aren’t just limited to interference with embryos, and risk aversion and the precautionary principle are drivers in debates as disparate as those on childcare or terrorism.

Despite these objections, Harris makes a laudable attempt to stand up to contemporary technological conservatism, and when on target, can really pack a punch. Harris’ arguments need to be taken seriously by all of those with an interest in scientific development and the bigger question of what it means to be human.


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