Archive for April 10th, 2013

Enhanced, but… improved?

April 10, 2013

We’re on in Bioethics to Michael Sandel’s The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (“The Ethics of Enhancement”) and Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement.

“Enhancement” is the inescapable issue here. Enhanced for what, to what end, with what rationale?

In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Bill McKibben imagines several responses. Perhaps the road to enhancement will take us to Enchantment too, and answers (at last!) to the philosophers’ perennial questions.

  • Where did the universe come from?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is the meaning of conscious existence?

“Not to be impolite, but for this we trade our humanity? Sure, these questions are important, especially the last one. But they’re not all-important.” Are we happy? might just be a better one.

What’s ultimately problematic about enhancing ourselves and our progeny, aside from legitimate worries about equity, democratic opportunity, and enhancement for all? Sandel is concerned for our freedom and dignity, for the “moral status of nature” and the “given world.” He’s worried about the prospective sacrifice of our humanity for something  less intrinsically meaningful and more divisive.

Powers is concerned for the fragility of happiness, and seems eager to impress upon us all a consciousness of ourselves, at this specific moment of natural history, as the collaborative authors of a future to whose inhabitants we owe the greatest generosity (which we can pay only in the coin of responsibility in the present).

Sandel begins with the case of the deaf lesbian couple who wanted a child “like themselves” (i.e., hearing impaired) and so arranged it, with a strategy “not very different from what straight couples do when they have children.”

Well, that could be the problem. Emerson long ago scolded parents who insist on reproducing “another you,” when “one’s enough” already. The problem’s in the will to design, rather than accept the genetic lottery’s default. “None of us chooses our own genetic inheritance,” nor should any of us have to accept the choices of parental engineers

And yet, “Viagra for the brain” sounds irresistibly alluring to some of us. “Memory suppression” too.

But as a parent who’s already spent a small fortune to educate the next generation, I’m definitely not interested in “hormonal arms’ races,” height extension, gender selection, or anything else in any Gattaca scenario. “They used to say that a child conceived in love…has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.” Well call me old-fashioned, I still do. [MoreIt’s Time to Question Bio-engineeringPowers@dawn/DS]

As for our playfully self-conscious novel, with its Camus epigraph, Sisyphean theme, and protagonist called “Stone”: the early stage-setting of Generosity comes with a foreboding warning (but also a reminder that we’re involved here with a story, a work of the imagination still subject to human choice and will): “Here… is one plot no one will ever bother writing down: A happy girl passes through the world’s wretchedness and stays happy.” Happy, generous, and present.

But do remember: this is fictionSo far.