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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mameli defends reproductive technologies (2) - The Open Future

Bioconservatives often argue that a child born from reproductive cloning, or after being genetically engineered to alter its potential, will not have an "open future". This has always seemed to me a ludicrous argument because it misunderstands what Joel Feinberg had in mind - and expressed clearly - when he originally employed the open future argument to criticise the US Supreme Court's decision to allow Amish families to withdraw their children early from the education system.

The argument is really about the alleged value of certain kinds of communities surviving into the future (I dispute that we should value this at all; if certain religiously deluded cultures eventually die out, with no violence against them, surely this is a good thing!), and the value of children growing to adulthood with a wide range of skills and capacities to fit them for a range of possible life plans and social roles.

Matteo Mameli is alert to this in his article "Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child: the moral agent and the open future." He makes the point by quoting the key passage from Feinberg, in which the latter defined what he meant by an open future (Mameli, page 90).

Buchanan et. al., in From Chance to Choice, argue that we should ban genetic interventions with a similar effect to cutting short education, i.e. interventions that restrict kids' options later in life (Mameli, page 90). Mameli comments that parents already shape kids for certain plans of life, which will tend to reduce their fitness for other plans, and that this is considered morally legitimate; however, there must be some moral limit to it. Mameli is inclined to think that the threshold below which we criticise parents is (socially) set quite low, i.e. we are prepared to accept a considerable squeezing down of kids' options before we criticise parents (page 91).

While Mameli is surely right about this, and there is, indeed, some point to acknowledging that parents are not required to sacrifice everything else to equipping their children with a huge array of skills and opportunities, I sometimes wonder whether we are too lenient towards parents. I'm horrified when I think about kids being brought up to believe that they are fundamentally sinners, or that sexual pleasure is somehow "dirty" or nasty, or that the findings of science are comprehensively, massively wrong - since modern biology, geology, and just about every other scientific field, contain findings that conflict with the literal claims of the Christian Bible. Indoctrination into a miserable, medieval worldview enormously restricts children's rational understanding of their universe and themselves; I believe that secular intellectuals should be appalled by this, but it's the elephant in the living room that (it seems) we don't want to see.

Be that as it may, Mameli is correct to note that some genetic interventions might expand, rather than diminish, the options available to children. However, some might reduce options in ways similar to those that are accepted now (such as encouragement to play a lot of tennis), and some in ways similar to those not currently accepted (such as not sending a child to school). The latter should be constrained (page 91).

Mameli also discusses the possibility that someone would be constrained in her array of life plans if she knew that she had the same genes as an earlier twin or that her genes had been chosen for a purpose by her parents (pages 91-92). He argues that in the case of reproductive cloning it would be open to children to rebel against any thought that they must follow a pre-existing life pattern, and we could teach kids from an early age that having the same genes as someone else does not destine you to leading a simlar life. The same applies mutatis mutandis to genetic engineering. Moreover, children can and do rebel against (some) parental expectations, and this would continue to be the case (arguably, to much the same extent as now). Finally, we already accept situations where childrens' future lives are shaped within severely narrow boundaries, as with the children of royalty - but no one suggests that royal couples be prohibited from having children (page 92).

I broadly agree with Mameli on these points, though I am less sanguine than he seems to be about the extent to which we already shape childrens' lives, and about the possibilty that genetic technology could be used in a way that would worsen an already unsatisfactory situation. Perhaps we need to exert more moral pressure on parents to open their childrens' futures, particularly by not brainwashing them with damaging ideas about themselves or the world - children should learn how to reason and think critically, not about feeling a burden of sin and guilt. To be blunt, we should be more critical of parents who inflict traditional religious teachings on children who are too young to understand, let alone criticise, what they are being told. If genetic technology were used, in some way, to make children more credulous of the miserable views inherent in the literal teachings of traditional Christianity and Islam, we would have every reason to be appalled.

But it looks to me as if the availability of reproductive cloning and genetic engineering would not make the situation worse. Once again, my emphasis is slightly different from that of Mameli: in my view, we should encourage forms of genetic engineering that will enhance childrens' capacities in ways that are likely to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves, and/or to increase their options in life - this would be so with many interventions designed to increase cognitive capacities, health, or longevity. To some extent, it would apply to other enhancements, such as improved strength or perceptual abiliities: these might not directly increase the capacity for understanding, or the opportunities to acquire it, but they would be of benefit in a myriad of ways, pervading somebody's life.

Properly used, genetic reproductive technologies would not close kids' futures. Their net effect would be to make the future more open.

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