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Posted on June 26, 2019 at 5:15 PM

by Julian Savulescu, Ph.D., MBBS

 “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5).

One of the well-worn objections in the enhancement literature is based on inequality. Enhancement will only be available to some, so it will create unjust inequality. This was captured in the popular film Gattaca. In the most common form, it is based on concerns about capitalist markets: the rich will buy superior enhancements, exacerbating existing injustice. In the case of genetic enhancement, that injustice will be written into our genes. I have responded elsewhere, arguing that regulation can enable enhancement to promote justice and correct natural inequality.

Robert Sparrow’s target article (2019) introduces an original twist on the inequality objection. While the inequality objection is typically cast in terms of exacerbating economic or social privilege, Sparrow argues it will create inequality directly by causing genetic obsolescence. Genetic enhancement, such as by gene editing, will by its very nature lead to unenhanced genes being now less fit for purpose, and ultimately obsolete.

Sparrow’s argument is based on the empirical speculation that gene editing will advance rapidly (some authors challenge this—e.g., Schaefer), perhaps exponentially, though he is at pains to distance himself from the claim that this is likely. But if it did progress rapidly, it would cause successive embryos to have superior genes to previous embryos, so each successive generation would be superior to the previous generation, who would be left with “obsolete” genes: “yesterday’s child.” This article represents a development of Sparrow’s previous treatment of this topic where he argued this would lead to an “enhanced rat race”. I here consider both articles, as they are complementary.

Let’s consider a candidate enhancement that Sparrow considers in the “parent” paper of this one: life extension. Chadwick also focuses on the example of life extension, which is “expected to generate especially severe subjective costs”. Let’s say that the current life expectancy is 80 years. Let’s assume gene editing could do the same in humans, so the next generation would expect to live, on average, 160 years. And the generation after that, 320 years. If the science were progressing rapidly, one might live significantly longer if one’s embryo were edited 10 years later. Although Sparrow claims that such radical enhancement is unlikely, results from enhancing nonhuman animals indicate otherwise. The Methuselah mouse has been genetically engineered to live twice as long as an ordinary mouse.

Sparrow claims that such “[e]nhancement of longevity that cannot be updated may … be expected to generate especially severe subjective costs” and “option regret”

The thought that one is likely to die 10 years earlier than one would have if one had waited just a year more to embrace some particular life-extending enhancement may be a cause for lifetime regret! Moreover, in a world where enhancement is possible, there is also likely to be a significant status component to the benefits of longer life expectancy.

Although Sparrow does not come to an all-things-considered judgment about whether genetic enhancement should be prohibited, he does believe the cost of obsolescence “should loom large in any reckoning of the costs and benefits of this project.”

Benston claims obsolescence could be so bad that there will be a flood of wrongful life suits because people’s lives are so bad in an obsolete state.

The main problem with enhancement that generates obsolescence seems to be speed, and its effects on status and the standards of expectation we apply. Perhaps genetic modification is an especially important case, but this worry would apply to any area in which change happens fast, a familiar feature of the modern world. Computing, education, phones, and so on all have this feature—even rising IQs, at least for a period, according to the Flynn effect. So one answer, if the costs are so high, would be to slow things down so that comparisons aren’t as direct. But since this seems silly in these others cases, we should ask, why are genes so special? There appears to genetic exceptionalism in operation.

However, an obvious answer if this is a problem is to set a limit on enhancement. For example, one could set maximum life expectancy at 160 years. But, as we shall see, this has ethical problems of its own.

Let’s grant that there is a potential problem in obsolescence. There are a number of problems with Sparrow’s argument that exemplify mistakes made by bioconservatives in the enhancement debate.

Sparrow defends the treatment-enhancement distinction. Thus treatments to enable a person to live until 80 years are permissible, but enhancements to live beyond 80 are not (or in this case, will create problems of “obsolescence”).

But where does this figure of 80 come from? And why is it morally significant? For large parts of human history, the “normal” or “natural” human life span was much shorter. Around 100 years ago, it was 50. At that time, problems of “obsolescence” would presumably have arisen if some people started to live to 80. Much of these increases are due to technology, or at least the application of science to extend life through environmental or social measures. Does Sparrow believe that we ought to have resisted these developments? Presumably not, but in that case, his resistance to further life extension seems to manifest a status quo or nature bias. As I have argued, “normal” or “natural” has no intrinsic normative significance but rather is based on a descriptive statistical endpoint.

As I have argued from a welfarist perspective, what matters is human well-being. Longer life is better than shorter life insofar as it contains more well-being. There is the same kind of reason to prolong life from 80 to 160, as there is to prolong it from 50 to 80. The fact that some people cannot or will not experience lives of the most well-being is not a good reason to prevent others from enjoying better lives. Leveling down to equality is wrong.

Sparrow grants that enhancements will be valuable in themselves and will provide partly nonpositional or “absolute” goods (which include to “live longer in good health, to be more intelligent, to have a better memory, and to be more capable of achieving one’s goals”. However, “the objective costs of obsolescence … are incurred as much by the pursuit of absolute goods as positional goods”. This will in part be due to negative subjective reactions to differential access to them as genes become obsolete, “option regret” of “what we might have had”.

But these subjective reactions are avoidable.

Consider again length of life. Many people today live less than 80 years and sometimes this is due to genetic causes. For example, in Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder, people can expect to have 40–50 years of good life before severe dementia and movement disorders set in. The gene for Huntington’s disease is bad because it makes the lives of those afflicted go less well. But these people are not “obsolete.” How well their lives can go, given the genetic constraints, depends in part on their own and other people’s subjective responses. They can still have good lives if they and others respond well. As Chadwick notes, “People with the shorter life span could still be valued comparably to those with longer life spans.”

As Beriain observes, health (acknowledged by Sparrow to be an absolute good) and other absolute goods come within the scope of the obsolescence critique, but we should aim at the eradication of disease and promotion of other absolute goods, as Ranisch also argues.

Sparrow refers glowingly to the critiques of enhancement developed by Sandel and Habermas. After Sandel, he claims that “the pursuit of enhancement turns children into projects of their parents” and that this is problematic because parents have to decide what is good for their child rather than leaving this open. This is puzzling in the context of life extension—Sparrow acknowledges that longer life is better. Indeed, he acknowledges that intelligence, better memory, and so on are good (as already described). Although some goods are reasonably contested, others aren’t. While some “improvements” may be driven by the market and “conspicuous consumption” (such as those listed by Garland Thomson, from “tattooing and skin whitening creams to aesthetic surgery such as Anglicizing nose jobs, to facelifts and more recently vaginal rejuvenation surgery”), others such as longer, healthier life drive the market because they are genuinely good.

Sparrow repeats Sandel’s worry that “when parenting involves enhancement there is a strong tension between the love that ‘accepts’ and the love that ‘transforms’”. Frankly, I can’t see that one should accept that one’s child should have a shorter life when she could have a longer better life. Of course, parents can do all sorts of bad things to their children. Hyperparents (who constrain their children’s options on the basis of their own values) now exist without genetic enhancements being available, and the availability of genetic enhancements would give them greater powers to abuse. There is thus a need to improve parenting practices. But we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Enhancement can increase both well-being and autonomy, and we should not forego these gains simply because less desirable uses of enhancement are also possible.

Perhaps Sparrow follows Habermas in believing that even well-being- and autonomy-promoting forms of enhancement are problematic because “[t]he project of genetic enhancement requires that designers treat human embryos as systems to be manipulated and, thus, to adopt an ‘instrumental’ or ‘technical’ mode of relation to the future person. In this, he argues, it is to be distinguished from parenting, which—although it may have its instrumental moments—is regulated by a communicative relation to the child as a future member of the kingdom of ends”.

However, the embryo is not the future person. Genes are not persons. To manipulate a gene or embryo is not to manipulate a person. One can still have a communicative relation with a future child if an embryo’s genes were modified, or a genetic disorder cured. One can treat a future child as an end while still having selecting it as stem-cell donor (savior sibling), or improving its genetic hand. At the heart of all these concerns is a reductionism that reduces persons (and their treatment) to genes or embryos. How we choose to treat persons is entirely separable from how we choose to treat the genes of an embryo.

Sparrow is guilty of reducing persons to their genes or traits. Sparrow writes, “It is people who will be made obsolete by progress in genetic enhancement technology”. As Riddle and Butler

nicely put it, “Unlike market commodities, human beings have an independent moral status unrelated to any externally imposed purposes which they might serve. This means that while particular aspects of an individual may be said to be obsolete relative to some context of external purposes, an individual as such cannot intelligibly be said to be obsolete; the relevant teleological background is lacking.”

How would you feel if your parents chose to modify your genes to give you an extra 20 years of healthy life? At 55, I would be deeply grateful. Indeed, I would resent them if they didn’t.

This brings us to the flip side of the subjective reaction coin. How will people feel if their parents don’t enhance them, when they could have? Imagine my parents had the opportunity to enhance me so I lived 160 years, rather than 80. However, Sparrow’s concerns about obsolescence dominated public policy and enhancement was not allowed because in 10 years, people could edit their embryos to live to 320 years. Best we don’t become obsolete, so let’s stick to 80.

I would be furious that I had been denied another 80 good years of life, even though some others could have had another 240! It is like saying to a child, “Because your life can only be extended from 5 to 10 years, but other people’s can be extended from 40 to 80, we aren’t going to extend anyone’s lives because that will increase inequality.”

Contra Benston, it may be negligent to fail to enhance one’s child.

Inevitably our lives will differ in length and quality, whether that be by genetic or environmental cause. The main goal of ethics is to make those lives as good as possible for the people living them (“treating them as ends”). This doesn’t preclude trying to give our children better lives, even if this may lead to future generations enjoying even better ones.

At the heart of concerns about inequality and obsolescence is the vice of envy. Sparrow speaks of social status around enhancement. The reason that we treat ourselves or other people with less advantageous genes in a worse way is in some part due to negative moral emotions such as envy. Commitment to egalitarianism can be born of envy.

But rather than trying to stop people having longer or better lives because we are envious of them, we should try to remove envy. This could be done through social means, and education, or potentially through moral bioenhancement. Reducing jealousy and envy (or increasing empathy, as proposed by Gray and Gorin would be a good candidate. Sparrow does consider moral bioenhancement as a measure (after I think I prompted him as a reviewer) but quickly dismisses it as infeasible. But if we are considering massive genetic enhancements occurring in 10 years, this assumption seems arbitrary and self-serving.

As Chadwick interestingly observes, where moral enhancement (e.g., increased empathy) comes at a cost to self-interest (e.g., greater psychic pain from identifying with others’ suffering), those who are not enhanced might be prudentially better off, and presumably happier.

Probably the biggest weakness in this article, which draws considerable attention in the commentaries, and the enhancement debate in general, is a kind of social determinism and denial of human freedom. “If these enhancements become available, they will be expensive, and only available on the market, and the rich will only have access to them and they will inevitably increase inequality.”

Of course that is possible and perhaps likely. But it is not inevitable. And the kind of dystopia Sparrow imagines is of course possible but it is not inevitable. Likewise, the utopia postulated by the transhumanists and posthumanists is possible, but by no means inevitable.

Sparrow raises some valid concerns about obsolescence, but whether they materialize will turn on the policies and practices we engage in as our genetic future unfolds. We could choose to treat all people as equals, even if they are not. And we could choose to distribute enhancements fairly (perhaps outside the market). Frank and Klincewicz argue for “other legal and economic instruments that ensure equal treatment under law and ensure socioeconomic parity” to avoid obsolescence. Riddle and Butler draw parallels with social model of disability and argue for removing social barriers, while Gray and Gorin even propose an enhancement tax.

Judicious choice of policy, rather than prohibition, can avoid dystopia. We are not determined to pursue some social path, or engage in some vicious subjective reaction, as Sparrow assumes. We are free, and free to shape our reactions and policy. To consider Sparrow’s own example: “The thought that one is likely to die 10 years earlier than one would have if one had waited just a year more to embrace some particular life-extending enhancement may be a cause for lifetime regret!”

This is a valid concern if embryos are frozen and waiting for the choice of particular gene editing enhancement. If you gene edit Jonny now, he will live to 160, but if you keep the embryo frozen for another 10 years, Jonny could have lived to 320. Jonny could rightfully complain if you edit now, rather than waiting, that he could have had another 160 good years.

However, if there is a law preventing embryos from being frozen for a significant period of time, this problem is deflated. Imagine you have a choice: you could either choose a sperm and egg now, and create Jonny who would be edited and live 160 years. Or you could wait 10 years and select a different sperm and egg and create Wilma, who will be gene edited to live 320 years. Jonny is not harmed in this case by you failing to wait for 10 years for better gene editing.

Option regret due to obsolescence in gene editing could be avoided by a simple policy: not freezing embryos for long periods of time. It is of course true that Jonny could still blame the regulators for having prohibited prolonged egg freezing. However, the degree of responsibility the regulators have (and blame attributable) is less than if they banned enhancement outright to prevent obsolescence. At least Jonny got an extra 80 years. Such a policy would give some weight to concerns about obsolescence, and some weight to the value of enhancement. And as I have said, it might be better to blunt such negative reactions as regret by moral bioenhancement.

We have freedom and that freedom can be based on reason: in this case, the value of enhancement and the disvalue of obsolescence. I call freedom based on reasons, rational freedom.

Aging will make us all obsolete. In the end, we will all be dead and forgotten. Time’s passage is a great equalizer. The truly significant enhancement would be immortality. But short of this, we should each just hope for the best chance of the best life.

The author acknowledges Guy Kahane, Tom Douglas, and Miriam Wood for valuable comments and suggestions.

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