Dina has kindly posted a draft of a chapter that I wrote that is forthcoming in a volume on Philosophy in Schools. I wrote most of it a long time ago, when I was working at the Institute of Education, and involved in developing the Citizenship Education program there. Conversations with teachers, teacher educators, and researchers confirmed that a lot of teachers who would be leaned on to teach Citizenship Education lack the necessary confidence and resources to teach about controversial moral issues in a non-dogmatic way. This is not a criticism—it is what I heard from them, directly. It seemed to me that the experience of college-level philosophy teachers especially of service courses (such as my Contemporary Moral Issues course) might be useful for teachers to reflect on. What especially struck me at the time was that teachers did not have a lot of written material to read, either to prompt discussion in class or to help them prepare for managing such discussion. So the chapter linked to basically outlines the way that I tend to introduce my CMI course, and outlines a way of thinking about the values at stake in various debates, but then, at the end, gives very short (1500 words or so) accounts of some of the moral debates around two issues in bioethics—abortion, and designing children. I’ve copied the “designing children” section below the fold, but encourage teachers to read the whole thing.
A comment Dina made to me in an email—that she was preparing to use a thought experiment from my book Justice in class—prompted me to think it might be useful to collect a bunch of such precis in a single place, readily available on the web for any teacher who wanted to use them. I don’t mean to be prescriptive (though the chapter probably sounds that way)—I realise that the way I go about teaching these issues will work for some people, not for others—but it seems to me that if a teacher has an analytic turn of mind resources like these might be helpful. If I make any headway on developing such a resource I’ll let you know. Anyway, here’s the bit on designing children:
Technology now exists that allows parents to choose – or at least dramatically increase the probability of their children having – certain genetic traits. There are three central mechanisms:
1. Selective abortion (which enables parents to abort fetuses found to have certain disabilities, such as Downs Syndrome and Cystic Fybrosis; or, in the most common case, to abort female fetuses when a boy is wanted).
2. Selection of the other biological parent. This is routine, of course, when people choose their partners, which are typically of the same race, social class, and national identity as they are. But in the US, for example, it is legal to pay for the services of sperm donors and egg donors, and it is therefore possible to select the traits of those donors without having actually to marry, or in any way attract, them. A famous advertisement in the daily newspaper of an Ivy League university sought an egg donor who was at least 5ft 10 in, had a family history free of congenital disease, and a high IQ; the promised fee was $50,000. In 2000, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy Mcullough, a lesbian couple, sought a sperm donor with 5 generations of deafness in his family to increase the probability that their child would, like them, be deaf.
3. Gene-therapy. This is the fastest-growing form of designing babies – gene therapy can be used to avoid certain traits, and to select others, such as eye colour. In our lifetimes it is likely that scientists will have sufficient understanding of the human genome to support the development of technology that will allow parents to prevent some disabilities and to choose many desirable traits (eye colour, IQ, height, etc) without rejecting a given fetus.
This is a moral issue, unlike abortion, concerning which there is not yet a large and sophisticated philosophical literature to draw on, so rather than focus in depth on particular arguments, it is more fruitful to try and elicit considerations pointing one way or another. In that spirit here are some arguments for and against allowing parents freedom, with some discussion.
A) Arguments for allowing people to design their babies:
1. Parents should be allowed to do their best for their children. We allow them to buy them private schooling, which helps them to earn more money and have more rewarding jobs. We allow them to buy cosmetic orthodontistry, to make them more confident and more attractive to potential mates. We even allow adults to buy all sorts of cosmetic surgery to make them more attractive. Selecting traits is not fundamentally different: it is just allowing parents to do their best for their children. If we have the technology people should be allowed to use it. (Note that there is economic research showing that men who are taller, and people who are more conventionally attractive, earn more money than others over the course of their lives, controlling for social class background, schooling, and IQ)
2. Parents should be allowed to choose traits of their children, so that the children will be more like, or perhaps less like, them. We allow them to choose what sort of schooling their children get; what sort of church if any they will go to; what sort of communities they will grow up in (for example, they can raise them in a Kibbutz, or a hippy commune, or a strict religious order). If they are allowed to do it by choosing their environments, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do it by choosing the child’s traits?
3. Regardless of what we actually allow right now, human freedom is a great good, and respecting it requires that we allow parents to use available technology without the government intruding by asking about their motives and effects, as long as in doing so they do not cause serious harms to their children or others.
B). Arguments against allowing it:
1. Man should not interfere with nature.
This is the most common response, but it is not really an argument. First of all, man is part of nature, and whatever he does is ‘natural’. So saying that man should not interfere with nature does not rule anything out. Of course, people usually mean something else by ‘nature’ in this context, but it is not clear what. If it means whatever is outside man, the principle would disallow all of modern technological society, and would especially disallow medical interventions to cure disease and lessen suffering. “Not natural” is often a not very good way of articulating a sense of deep unease for which one cannot actually provide and argument
2. Human diversity is very important. If parents were allowed to select traits, diversity would diminish, because there would be a `race to the top’ as it were, in which everyone had a few, highly valued, traits. This argument is stronger against selection of some traits than others. For example, sex selective abortion is used widely in Asia to select against girl children, who are less economically valuable to their parents than boy children. It is easy to see the potential for social disaster if the ratio of women to men fell dramatically.
But what about other traits? Why would it matter if, for example, there were less diversity of eye color, or of height, or even of IQ. And even for those traits that we do want diversely dispersed, this doesn’t rule out the use of trait-selection. The government could auction rights to select traits for example, and limit the supply of rights so that the distribution of traits remains diverse. This would allow the rich to get what they wanted for their children, so might be thought to be unfair. But it could use the income from the auction to provide a basic income for all those children who do not get the most highly valued traits. Or the government could organize a lottery to distribute rights to select traits, in which every parent has an equal stake.
3. We don’t know what the consequences would be for natural selection, and for society, of allowing widespread trait-selection. So we should not do it. This argument needs spelling out a bit more. Ask students what sort of bad consequences they might expect? The science is certainly young and the technology is bound to be a bit uncertain, and it is reasonable to apply a certain principle of conservatism to these sorts of matters. But as the science and technology improves, won’t the strength of this objection fade?
4. American philosopher Michael Sandel has recently advanced an argument (in The Case Against Perfection) against allowing people to design their offspring grounded in the motives involved. He argues, broadly speaking, that what is wrong with designing children is the hubris of the activity, the attempt to master what is and ought to be a mysterious process. To the response that parents exhibit similar hubris by, for example, intensively subjecting their children to high pressure schooling, and trying to control their friendship networks etc, Sandel says, certainly, they do these things, and in doing so they exhibit the same vice; intensive parenting is bad for the same reason that designing children is.
C. An argument for allowing some design interventions but not others:
The claim here is that society should allow parents to eliminate disabilities by whatever route is possible, but not to select advantageous traits and abilities, and not to force disabilities on them. Why? Because people have a right to live a normal life, if it is possible, and this means they have a right to be rid of disabilities (if technology allows) and not to have disabilities forced on them. But they do not have a right to have advantages over others, like being taller and more attractive. The natural objection is that some people are, in fact, taller and more attractive than others, because they are lucky enough to have tall, or attractive, parents (or short or unattractive parents who accidentally passed on a combination of traits that underwrite height or attractiveness). Why should these advantages be restricted to people lucky enough to have the necessary genetic heritage?
What about Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough? Most students, hearing of their choice, will think that they were doing something profoundly wrong, and will agree with Baroness Nicholson’s comment that ‘If they succeed, that child should have the right to sue its parent for imposing on it a disability’. (Nicholson is deaf herself; and they did succeed, and have a son). But in fact deafness is rather a special disability. Many deaf adults believe that they participate in a community with other deaf adults, and say, apparently sincerely, that they do not regard their deafness as a disability, or defect, at all. There is no other (apparent) disability which is so widely embraced by those who suffer it. The deaf have, furthermore, one of the standard markers of culture, a distinctive language. There is a real case against the claim that deafness is a disability at all. Furthermore, it is very hard to see what complaint the deaf child has in this case. If his mothers had not selected that donor he (the deaf child) would never have been born. He would never have existed. Surely it is better for her that she is alive than that she had never been alive. We could only deny this if we thought that the life of someone who was profoundly deaf was not worth living, which is obviously false.