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Everyday Ethics

"Chance or Choice:" What is Genetic Enhancement?

In the first post of this series I give a broad overview of some of the ethical issues arising from the "new genetics."

In the first post of this series I give a broad overview of some of the ethical issues arising from the "new genetics."

The use of technology to enhance human capability is as old as humanity itself. In fact, the effect of technological enhancement is so common and pervasive that most people engage in their daily activities without giving it a second thought. Just consider your daily morning routine. You get out of bed and immediately scrounge around for your eye glasses (enhancing your sight), then you head to the sink and grab your toothbrush (enhancing the longevity of your teeth), get dressed (enhancing your ability to withstand the latest winter snow storm), and finally have your morning cup of coffee (enhancing your unfortunately low morning energy levels). If you have a hard time considering your morning “cup of joe” an “enhancement technology,” it is instructive to consider its use by elite athletes. Elite weightlifter Jon North commonly extols the positive affect that coffee has on his training. One could argue that use of technology for the purposes of enhancement is a defining characteristic of human beings.


For most of human history these attempts at enhancement have aimed at supplementing human nature. Cars are a perfect example. Anyone who uses a car has their mobility increased by being able to get around much quicker. This technology, however, has not actually changed human nature. Having a car does not increase the range of speeds in which human beings are capable of running. It is simply an artificial aid. How fast, and with how much stamina, one can move through one’s own power is still the product of genetic chance and training. The most technology can do, it seems, is help us to overcome the limitations human nature imposes.

Through scientific advance we are now entering an age where enhancement of a new sort will be possible. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 researchers have begun considering the possibility of genetic enhancement. This would involve intervening into human genetic code and inserting new, enhanced, genes. A number of different enhancements may be possible: increasing human resistance to disease, strength, intelligence, and even enhancing our moral disposition. The title of one well-known book on the subject, written by Allen Buchanan et. al, describes well the nature of this impending genetic revolution: “From Chance to Choice.” Until now enhancement techniques had to deal with human nature as it was given to us: as the chance product of biological evolution. With new advances in genetics, however, there is the possibility that the constitution of human nature will be a matter of choice.

The purpose of this series of blog posts will be to examine the ethical issues that surround these new genetic technologies. How do genetic enhancements relate to drugs designed to enhance physical or mental performance? Is genetic modification of human nature unnatural, or a misguided attempt to “play God?” Or is genetic enhancement continuous with other enhancement-based technologies? How do attempts at genetic enhancement affect our conception of disability? Is it ethical to use new genetic technologies to select what sorts of people will be born?