About Me

My Photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Genetic chimeras - and why give a damn about morality?

I just made some comments like the following in another forum, where my pal Damien Broderick was discussing the morality of scientific experiments that involve inserting human genes into non-human animals. Damien, quite rightly, fulminated against the bizarre essentialism implicit in some of the attacks on these experiments.

This provoked me to some thoughts about what morality is actually for. Why give a damn about it, as most of us obviously do?

I see morality as a social institution that we use to protect things that we rationally value, and protect us and other beings that we care about from things that we rationally fear. The word "rationally" and its cognates require a lot of glossing, of course, and that is part of my project when I'm wearing my hat as a philosopher. In practice, popular morality often protects us from things that don't seem all that scary, if we look at it in a hard-headed, yet soft-hearted, way. Some moral pronouncements that emanate from bioconservatives are much worse than popular morality; they appear to have lost contact totally with what morality is actually for. Morality does some good; there are contexts in which we need more of it. But it also has effects that it is rational for beings like us to assess as harmful.

I want to be clear that our fears and values don't have to be egoistic ones. I'd be fearful for poor little Ratty the super-rat if she was going to be despised and rejected like Frankenstein's monster, miserable about the love she never obtains from her kind, heartbreakingly frustrated in her efforts to grow up and attend Oxbridge, then become an airline pilot, etc. If all that is going to happen, let's not bring such an unhappy creature into the world. It would be an outcome to shock our sympathies, even if it never disrupted our society or harmed us directly.

But of course such a thing is not going to happen. It's not the sort of result you'd get inadvertently, or that scientists are building up to deliberately. There are a few people, such as another friend, James Hughes, who seriously champion the creation of "uplifted" animals, but the idea is that these animals would be well cared for, and even deferred to. I'm not sure that would be the practical outcome, but the issue here is essentially a simple consequentialist one. In any event, the production of superintelligent rats, cats, and elephants is not on the agenda of current genetic research.

As Damien says, the worries about genetic human/animal chimeras seem to imagine scenarios from Z-grade science fiction movies.

When looking at what moralists say, I like to ask myself a few straightforward questions. Does what they are inveighing against really disrupt the functioning of our society? If not, does it nonetheless shock our sympathies for other sentient creatures, or destroy something that we greatly value? If not, why exactly should I give a damn?

Frankly, there's a place for moralists - but there's also good reason to keep them in their place.