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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, August 13, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin: Genetic engineering and the principle of intangible harm"

From March 2004 to August 2008 - when I submitted my dissertation to be examined - I undertook a Ph.D. in philosophy at Monash University under the supervision of Justin Oakley (with Dirk Baltzly filling in at one point while Justin was on sabbatical leave). My associate supervisors were Jeanette Kennett (briefly) and Rob Sparrow.

(During this time, I also did a lot of sessional lecturing and tutoring across the philosophy and bioethics curriculum at Monash; this, in fact, continued almost until I shifted house from Melbourne to Newcastle in late 2009. I still have many friends at Monash, though some have moved on to other institutions or to retirement.)

The title of my doctoral dissertation was "Human Enhancement: The Challenge to Liberal Tolerance." It was passed without revisions in November 2008, and I formally graduated in absentia at a ceremony in early 2009. Subsequently, I revised, updated, and slightly expanded it for publication as a book with MIT Press. This appeared at the beginning of 2014 under the title Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

In both the dissertation and the book, I argue that the nations of the world, and particularly the liberal democracies of the West, have been too hasty to enact draconian laws against a range of "genetic choices", such as human therapeutic and reproductive cloning, certain uses of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and genetic modification of human embryos. Not only that, the illiberal approach taken in this case augurs badly for the likely political responses to any future innovations that might cause widespread outrage and fear.

Throughout, I attempt to distinguish between, on one hand, moral arguments that might be made from various contestable viewpoints that should not prevail in lawmaking within liberal democracies and, on the other hand, widely accepted liberal principles such as the Millian harm principle. I consider various arguments against genetic choices that might plausibly pass muster under liberal principles - and while I find various grains of merit in some of them, I don't find enough to justify the regimes of restrictions and bans that are currently in place, many of them enacted in response to the announcement, in early 1997, of the birth of Dolly the Sheep.

I'm linking to my article "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin: Genetic engineering and the principle of intangible harm." This was published in The Monist, a prestigious peer-reviewed philosophy journal, during my stint at Monash. It was one of several journal articles that I wrote while completing the Ph.D. I've recently uploaded a copy at Academia.edu - so you might want to check it out if you have access.

The point of the article is to consider whether technologies such as genetic engineering of human embryos could cause some kind of "intangible harm" to human societies such as described by the great British jurist Lord Patrick Devlin. I ask about the possible social effects if genetic engineering is used to produce dramatic enhancements of human capacities.

Devlin notoriously put forward the argument about intangible harm during debates in the late 1950s, and into the 1960s, about legalisation of prostitution and homosexual acts. He was replying to the Wolfenden Report, which recommended liberal reforms to the law in Britain. The overall judgment of history has been that Devlin's arguments in defence of a conservative position - and what is now called legal moralism - failed (though of course there is still much opposition to prostitution, often on independent grounds based largely on paternalism).

For all that, might Devlin have something to teach us? His suggestion that allowing some practices could cause so-called "intangible harm", by destroying social bonds in some way, is not obviously ridiculous, even if fails badly as a justification for prohibition of, in particular, homosexual acts. In "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin", I try to sort out whether the argument does any better with more futuristic practices such as genetic engineering (something that we are now closer to being able to do effectively, with the recent development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology). In the end, I'm rather sceptical, despite trying to give the argument a good run.

To be honest, I think I do a better job with this in Humanity Enhanced, based on my dissertation written a few years after the article. My later accounts have a sharper, and more comprehensive, analysis of the jurisprudential principles involved.

But I'm fond of "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin." Although it represents a relatively early stage of my thinking - published, as it was, about seven years before Humanity Enhanced - I still feel that I managed to lend some clarity to difficult issues. Do check it out if the policy issues surrounding genetic science interest you. As its (memetic) parent, I'm certainly biased, but I think it deserves some more readers.

Postscript: Having just re-read the article, I think the above even sells it a bit short. At any rate, if you don't have the time to read, or money to buy, Humanity Enhanced, "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin" might be worth your while. It lays out a lot of my thinking about these issues in fairly extended form. Also, it gives an idea of where I am coming from in debates about genetic choice and much else.

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