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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mameli defends reproductive technologies (1)

A recent Journal of Medical Ethics article by Matteo Mameli challenges two versions of the popular argument that human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering should be prohibited because they would undermine the autonomy of children. The reference is M. Mameli, "Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child", Journal of Medical Ethics 33 (2007): 87-93.

Mameli notes that one argument against these technologies is that they are not safe and could result in developmental abnormalities. However, as he points out, this argument will cease to have application if a point is reached when cloning and genetic engineering are as reliable as other reproductive technologies (page 87). He gives only a brief discussion of how this could be done (and it is not entirely satisfactory, in my opinion), but he is surely right that technological advances could, in principle, undermine the argument. This means that we need to look at what other arguments are on the table.

Arguments relating to the autonomy of children are, of course, popular among bioconservatives, notably Jurgen Habermas, who essentially bases his case against genetic reproductive technologies on this point.

The two versions of the argument that Mameli identifies are: first, that the autonomy of the children concerned will be undermined because knowledge of how they were conceived will render them unable to take full responsibility for their actions (he attributes this claim to Habermas); and second, that such technologies will violate the children's supposed right to an open future (he mentions a couple of references, including the revered From Chance to Choice, by Buchanan, et. al.) (page 87).

In this blog post, I'll confine myself to the first argument, that pursued by Habermas, just to save some time and space. I'll get to the second argument in a follow-up post.

As Mameli describes the argument pursued by Habermas, it is along these lines: to be a full member of a moral community, one must be able to conceive of oneself as such; for this to happen, one must be able to assume full responsibility for one's actions in the same way as others. But the children who have been created by reproductive cloning or genetic engineering would be unable to conceive of themselves in this way, perhaps because they really would not be fully responsible for their actions like the rest of us. It follows that these children could not become full members of their moral communities (page 88).

I find the argument attributed to Habermas initially implausible - partly because it connotes a spooky and unreal concept of taking full responsibility for our actions: we are all products of our heredity and environment (including upbringing) and none of us can ever be responsible for what we do all the way down below the events that shaped us. We can be responsible in lesser senses, of course, e.g. our actions can reflect our beliefs and values, and that is (I'd argue) all we require. But the same applies to people who have been born from reproductive cloning or genetic engineering.

Mameli makes a similar point - we cannot choose the psychological makeup that we find ourselves with at the time we first start reflecting on our own desires and other aspects of our psychological makeup, so our reflections are always shaped by something beyond our control (page 88). However, he says, Habermas believes that we do not need to have full responsibility for our psychological makeup, in order to be fully responsible as moral agents, but only that we need to be in a position where "our basic psychological makeup is not the desired outcome of someone else's choice." According to Habermas, I cannot be fully responsible in the required sense if my psychological makeup is partly the result of parental choice of my genes (page 88).

There is some shifting here between being fully and partly a product of parental choice, and if it is supposed to be "partly" it sounds like a very arbitrary principle. All children's personalities are shaped partly by the conscious choices of the adults around them. Surely we accept this, even approve of it.

Mameli's response is to point out that people's dispositions are typically the result, in part, of parental choices to control their childrens' environments in various ways, e.g. by teaching kids to be altruistic, so why should it matter if the means used are partly genetic? (pages 88-89)

Habermas has anticipated this point, however - he argues that children can rid themselves of the effect of their parents' environmental decisions, whereas genetic effects are irreversible - but Mameli cites research showing that the opposite is often true, that environmental effects on psychological development are often not reversible, while many genetic effects are (page 89). Indeed, the claim by Habermas is simply implausible on its face. No one can ever step entirely out of her existing values, however they were shaped, at the time she reflects on her values. This would be a spooky kind of autonomy all the way down, once again.

To some extent, Habermas seems to argue that what matters is not the truth of all this, but how it would be perceived by the children themselves (perhaps even mistakenly); to this Mameli points out that the children would be very unlikely to perceive themselves as other than fully responsible (in the qualified, non-spooky sense that is actually possible), since to do so would involve seeing themselves as outside of society. People actually want to held accountable for their actions, because of the great social advantages this brings them. Admittedly, some people do try to blame their parents for how they turned out, but that does not inspire us to prohibit parents from, for example, deciding how to educate their kids. If necessary, we can make a social decision to teach children to accept responsibility for their actions and not devalue themselves mistakenly (page 89). I add that of course some ways we educate kids might need to change in a society with genetic engineering, but why should that be surprising or alarming?

Mameli next considers whether the kind of self-devaluation postulated by Habermas would be almost ineradicable by reasoning, like some kinds of depression, but he points out that the self-devaluation would arise from a reasoning process, not from an organic cause in the functioning of brain. Of course, some kinds of depression begin with feelings of life going badly, which may then cause an organic effect. With cloning and genetic engineering cases, however, we could avoid children forming the wrong thoughts in the first place, by teaching them at an early age that they have responsibility for their own lives; we could tell them the disavantages and irrationality of the kind of self-devaluation that Habermas postulates (pages 89-90).

As Mameli states, none of this denies that some parents could make decisions that would undermine the moral agency of their children, e.g. they could choose genes to disable their children intellectually. This would be analogous to abusive environmental choices by parents, but the remote chance of parents acting in this way would not be a reason to prohibit genetic reproductive technologies (page 90).

All right, then, who has the better of this argument, out of Habermas and Mameli - who is being more realistic? I suspect that the picture painted by Mameli is slightly too rosy if we are discussing genetic choices that relate directly to the personality of the child. In those cases, perhaps, the child could end up confused and resentful, and it does, in any event, seem like a foolish kind of micro-management for psrents to try to indulge in.

But Mameli neglects, at this stage of his article, to mention two apects that would tend to strengthen his position. First, the whole argument developed by Habermas is weak in its application to reproductive cloning, which is not the focus of the case that Habermas builds. Knowing that I have received the same genes as my "father" - i.e. the random assortment that my nuclear DNA donor received from his parents - is quite different from knowing that my whole personality has been designed in advance.

Second, parental choices relating to genetic engineering might sometimes involve attempts to control personality traits, but they are perhaps more likely to involve the enhancement of intelligence, strength, coordination, perceptual powers (keen eyesight, for example), energy, health, longevity, and the physical components of beauty (such as facial and bodily symmetry). Possessing any or all of these would certainly have an influence on a child's developing personality, but that also applies if those traits are influenced by environmental interventions (e.g. by teaching a child to read, or to play sport, or by giving the child good nutrition). These look more like gifts than attempts at a kind of genetic brainwashing, and they are likely to be experienced as such rather than as attempts at personality control.

At a minimum, then, the psychological and social risks discussed by Habermas seem exaggerated, and any downside has to be weighed against the individual and social goods that might be gained. We should not use genetic technologies foolishly (e.g. before they are safe, or in an attempt to control too much detail of how our children's personalities turn out), but there is every reason to believe that the benefits would outweigh the harm if we could actually develop and use safe techniques of reproductive cloning and human genetic engineering.


Blake Stacey said...

"Second, parental choices relating to genetic engineering might sometimes involve attempts to control personality traits, but they are perhaps more likely to involve the enhancement of intelligence, strength, coordination, perceptual powers (keen eyesight, for example), energy, health, longevity, and the physical components of beauty (such as facial and bodily symmetry)."

Don't forget the X gene. . . .

Most of the people I've met do not know that I was born by Caesarian section, and those who do know, don't seem to care. Though I am technically qualified to kill Macbeth, it doesn't appear to matter all that much in the modern world. I'm led to suspect that cloning would be similar (except in portions of the population who are reflexively primed to react against the very word "clone", most likely for religious reasons).

"Oh, so you have an identical twin? Except the twin is thirty years older? Oh. . . so which one of you is evil and which is good, ha ha?"

Blake Stacey said...

Funnily enough, not long after reading this post I noticed PZ Myers had put something up about a Southern Baptist take on fetal engineering.

Russell Blackford said...

I've never understood about the X gene problem - I mean, if a couple particularly want to have a girl, or a boy, that is entirely their choice. I see no reason to make a moral judgment about it.

If the cumulative effect started to skew the sex ratios, we might nonetheless hsve to regulate access in some way, e.g. requiring that each decision to have a boy was "paired" with someone else's decision to use the same clinic to have a girl, but there's no evidence that that would be needed in Western societies.

Blake Stacey said...

Oops. My comment would have made much more sense if I had remembered to add the appropriate hyperlink.