For eons, insecurities over our looks have been determined by whether our parents were pretty as a picture or had a face only a mother could love. Nonetheless, we still tried to become lookers rather than onlookers. Thus, different standards of beauty as well as different ways of enhancing beauty sprung up here and there. Nowadays, we touch up our faces with make-up kits or, if you’re in South Korea, a surgeon’s kit. All of these attempts fall under the domain of alterations since birth, rather than altering one’s genetic make-up. Recently though, we’ve whiffed a new kit of “scientific” tools to help us overcome this primordial desire to wake up and see a beautiful face in the mirror. This pungent smell that stings my nose comes from the noxious history of genetic engineering, or what some may call, eugenics. Eugenics is a word that makes many squeamish, calling to mind stormy bawls of Adolf Hitler echoing throughout one’s conscience, for it has and still does ring alarming noises of genocide as well as genetic elitism.

What is genetic engineering? There exist many kinds. But, the type I’m particularly concerned with is germline engineering. According to Nicholas Wade, germ-line engineering is the process of making “changes to human sperm, eggs or embryos that will last through the life of the individual and be passed on to future generations.”[1] Due to the wide-ranging implications of germ-line engineering, it has entered the radar of many ethicists and scientists. We could very much make the dream of Adolf Hitler come true, if this technique were adopted. However, genetic engineering also shows prospects of a possible world, where folks do not suffer from genetic diseases like Huntington disease. [2] Persons with this condition “jerk and twitch uncontrollably and rendering them progressively unable to walk, talk, think and swallow”[3] Should we deny these persons the chances of escaping a life, where one constantly prepares for his or her impending atrophy and death?3

Where must the line be drawn? This is a question ethicists have tackled down since the dawn of genetic engineering. Jürgen Habermas insists that one should only edit genes that lead to a harmful disease.[4] He worries that genetic engineering would take away the child’s ability to reflect upon and make his or her own decisions, since the parents would bring the child into the world with specific expectations. According to Habermas, this means that the children would make changes only according to the parents’ wishes, for their genes have been selected to satisfy their wishes. It appears as if he’s claiming that the child would have no free will or self-reflections. It sounds absurd to me that altering one’s genes to become more intelligent make one incapable of choosing right from wrong or self-reflection. It is certain then that the pressure exerted by the child’s parents is the morally relevant element. It may be argued that Habermas implied this as well by emphasizing how the parents selected their genes with strong intentionality. So, is this kind of pressuring specific to genetic engineering?

I would like to shed light onto how such a pressure is not contingent on genetic engineering with a thought experiment:

Let’s say we could somehow go back in time to late 14th century South Korea, where the kingdom of Joseon ruled its populous. Let’s say we met a noble man named Yi Soon Shin who was to be wed in a few days. When we talk to Yi, he’s somehow happy to tell us details of his marriage. He tells us that his father raised him to become a state council his entire life. Every aspect of Yi’s life has been governed by his father, a state council himself, to make Yi become a state council. His marriage follows this trend as well, and Yi is happy to do the same for his son. His father specifically chose his bride from the Kim family amongst their other daughters, for she has shown talent in writing, which is crucial for a state council. The Kim family has produced many state councils and Yi believes that their “blood” would help his son become one as well.

What makes a child from this marriage so different from a genetically engineered one? Surely, Yi’s child will not have scientists messing with his DNA. In that case, does the scientific procedure of genetic engineering make it more immoral than Yi’s Confucian parenting? This logic is problematic, since it would claim that a murder committed by scientists in a lab is worse than a “natural” one. I see no reason why murdering someone by producing a lethal drug is worse than killing someone with a knife. Let’s say, then, that the murderer had a powerful and effective method like genetic engineering to produce lethal drugs in numbers as large as billions within a few seconds. In the case of killing one person with this drug, his capacity to produce billions in a few seconds wouldn’t make the murder worse. Nevertheless, the man’s stupendous drug-making capacity would make many raise their eyebrows, since it carves up space for countless numbers of easy and efficient murders.

In order to produce a state council, Yi must wait for generations and take the risks of having a disabled or ill child. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, if further developed, could produce a legion of potential state councils with only a few hours in a lab. Due to the power of genetic engineering, there exist many possible evils like manifesting racist, sexist, or elitist preferences. In a society still plagued by racism and sexism, it would be absurd to think that such biases will not appear when genetic engineering becomes an affordable and efficient item on the market. If these biases were left unchecked, where parents in India and China could genetically modify their daughters into sons[5]. We could perhaps see a future where White, intelligent, and good-looking folks supremely prevailed, while minorities face extinction; thereby, resulting in eugenics akin to Hitler’s dreams. Furthermore, letting genetic engineering enter the market might cause the wealthy to become more beautiful and intelligent, for they would be the only ones who could afford the highest quality genes.

Even if one were to prohibit genetic engineering from entering the market and regulated by the government, we would still run into problems. Is every modification up for grabs? If not, how must one demarcate acceptable alterations from unacceptable ones? In order to tackle this question, I will address the implications of genetic engineering on the disabled to argue that re-thinking the boundary between the disabled and the ill delineates the aforementioned demarcation.

When we walk around the neighborhood, we occasionally encounter some folks with wheel chairs or assistance dogs to help them cross the street. Normally, we’ll carry on with our personal affairs. Sometimes, we may feel bad for their conditions, but the thought won’t linger for too long. This kind of periphery location is indeed where the disabled belong to in our everyday thoughts. I’m guilty of this everyday. Keeping them in our thoughts might be especially difficult, since most of us cannot identify with the experiences of a disabled person. Sure, we breathe, eat, love, and hate just as they do, but do we know what it means to leave one’s room twenty minutes before class to barely make it on time. And then, to discover that the stairs up the hill were not designed for someone like myself. These experiences tend to be cumbersome, yet quotidian for most folks with handicaps. For some who were born with handicaps, their conditions occupy a significant part of their identity.

For example, let us suppose that Ray Charles restored his eyesight. Would things have turned out the same? We might still enjoy his piano chops and killer vocals, but the spark of seeing a blind man so adeptly playing an instrument that heavily relies on sight would be gone. His blindness isn’t sufficient for him to be Ray Charles, but without it, he may not be the Ray Charles we’re all so familiar with. Now imagine if Ray Charles were dropped off in a possible world, where no one was blind due to genetic engineering. First, that populous would only enjoy the splendor of Ray Charles as a blind man due to the blind Ray’s presence. Second, it might even send the message to Ray that they did not want blind children, whom he once was a few decades ago, to not exist. He certainly didn’t like not being able to see sometimes, but he still found his life fruitful. Until he’s seen an entire world unwilling to let blind children live that is. There is every reason to think that the same message could be expressed to the disabled in our world, if we were to eliminate every disability.[6]

Some may criticize my question by arguing that seeing blindness or a handicap as a burden to lift from one’s shoulders is the act of admitting the unfair and discriminated realities of the disabled, rather than trying to take away their identity. If one were to receive consent from a blind person and help them regain vision, then it would indeed be an act of charity. However, germline engineering is distinct from such a case. In this case, the decision to rid of blindness is solely conducted by the parent. Habermas may be incorrect in assuming that genetic engineering would dissipate one’s ability to reflect upon his or her decisions, but he may be hitting on something when he speaks of the child’s lack of autonomy.

Is it then the lack of autonomy of one’s birth and circumstances that makes genetic engineering immoral? According to Heidegger[7], being thrown into the world with no prior knowledge is an essential facet of Being. Hence, genetic engineering neither begets thrownness nor lack of autonomy concerning one’s birth. We’re all thrown into the world without consent. Besides, from a utilitarian standpoint, alleviating the world of disabilities may bring about more happiness. It would even be cruel to refuse treatment for Huntington disease patients. But, is impairment equivalent to disease?

Impairments may inevitably produce suffering due to the way society receives and responds to them. Yet, they do not in and of themselves produce suffering. Let me use a thought experiment to help picture this:

 Imagine a possible world, where a person with impairments lived her entire life in a spatiotemporal cone isolated from other parts of the world. She might suffer, but it would not be due to her impairment. It would be due to other factors like loneliness, or a disease[8]. I cannot though, think of a possible world, where pancreatic cancer in and of itself does not cause suffering. The person could live in a world, where one could treat the cancer right away. But, treating the cancer or reducing its suffering show that in order to remove pain, one must some how remove or repress the cancer, rather than eliminating external features like the case of the disabled person’s spatiotemporal cone.

This seems to indicate that unlike diseases, disabilities do not cause suffering in and of themselves. It follows then that suffering involving disabilities is caused by society[9]’s or one’s reaction to disabilities. In a similar vein to the Buddhists who claim that one’s attachments cause suffering[10], society’s negligent and averse attachment to the disabled; and the person’s attachment to society’s attachment; cause suffering. If one wishes to eliminate the disabled’s suffering, one must target these attachments, rather than disabilities themselves.

Let us now return to the question of beauty. Appearance insecurity and discrimination belong to the same group as the plight of the disabled, since they do not cause suffering in and of themselves. To reduce suffering, then one must hack down averse attachments and treatments towards those who don’t fare as well in pictures and dating websites. One could say the same of intelligence. It is not within the essential features of intelligence or the lack thereof to cause suffering. Therefore, I argue that genetic engineering is not appropriate to end suffering involving disabilities, appearance, and intelligence. In order to truly bring an end to the suffering involving these issues, one must tackle down the true sources of suffering, such as society’s disgust towards less attractive persons or our ignorance of the lives of the disabled. I would not be opposed to genetically engineering our children to moderate or rid of these violent and discriminatory instincts, for my aim is to target causal agents of suffering. Although, violent impulses do not in and of themselves cause suffering, they are active participants in the “act” of causing suffering. Blindness or a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp do not actively “pursue” or “partake” in causing suffering. They are not impulses. Hence, I conclude that one must only genetically alter intrinsically painful traits like Huntington disease or direct causes of perverse attachment like discrimination and violence.

I anticipate several counter-arguments to my “Treat the disease, not the symptoms” position. Some may argue that when one gets rid of all disabilities, no suffering involving disabilities will persist. Ergo, eliminate disabilities through genetic engineering. This argument may sound like a Nazi-esque proposition, but if slightly altered could be quite a noble one. The suffering of many disabled folks is a real and it deserves real attention. If the individual asks to have her suffering alleviated and I’m able to do so, it would be repugnant for me to refuse. However, an embryo is different. Such suffering, for an embryo, never existed. Our obligation to an embryo is less than that of a living, sentient being. As I’ve noted before, indicating that all blind or disabled persons should disappear could express foul sentiments to the disabled and would cause suffering to those currently alive. Indeed, I have more obligations to the disabled who are currently alive. Furthermore, choosing which traits to discard, while they do not cause suffering in and of themselves, makes us overly focus on the symptoms, rather than the disease. Even if we were to eliminate suffering involving disabilities by removing them, we would still have discriminations of different abilities and interests. The disabled would not face ridiculous instances of having to climb stairs not designed for them, but if they were to have developed a passion for pottery, as abled persons, they would still face discriminations; especially, if society keeps heading towards corporatism. In fact, those who’ve developed passions for pottery as abled persons would be discriminated, if the world were full of beautiful and intelligent abled persons only. I’m supposing this would be the case based on the theory of relative suffering[11], which states that humans perceive suffering and pain in relation to an objective sense of how one’s suffering is lesser or greater than another’s. For example, if person A liked his toy car, because of its large size and nice designs. Now, if person B showed up to his person A’s apartment with an even larger car with nicer designs, would person A feel a bit differently towards his toy car? He would certainly not be as jaded by his car anymore.

Another criticism I anticipate would be that asking one to treat something as instinctual as discrimination or relative suffering too vague and demanding? This is a fair point. We may never arrive at an ideal haven of peaceful mingling. Yet, we’ve come up with many ways to battle our inner demons. The recent rise of women’s rights is a good example. When we preach and practice principles like equality, we bring about many changes. Equality is justifiable even from a utilitarian calculus, since it reduces the force of relative suffering. The more equal we become financially and socially, we shrink the gap of disparity that’s caused so much suffering through history. Now, equality is not a silly notion, in which we expect everyone to be identical. It means that we must recognize that treating another with bigotry and aversion for something they had no control over, such as race or sex, is immoral. It means recognizing that we all have equal moral standings. Principles such as these as well as adopting lifestyles and vocabularies like stoicism or metacognition[12] would allow fewer perverse attachments. Recent studies[13] show that those with a smaller volume of the amygdala show more aggression and violence. Feeding individuals the right food significantly reduces aggressive behaviors and increase social behaviors as well.[14] I am not opposed to the idea of genetically engineering ourselves to become more compassionate and less violent. It would effectively target the casual agent of much of our sufferings, rather than eliminating victims of these agents like disabilities. We must be rational and careful with the way we genetically engineer our ability to feel pain though. According to Richard Dawkins[15], “pain is the most effective way to quickly understand the gravity of a perilous situation and react accordingly.” If we’re not careful, we may bring upon extinction by trying to eradicate pain. Although I’m not opposed to the idea in principle, I would not agree to its implementation, unless I was sure it would guarantee human survival as well as reducing suffering. I’ve briefly attempted to show that there exist many ways in which the human species have tried to get at the very agents of suffering, rather than its victims. I’d love to go into further detail on how we’ve tried to over-ride our violent and chauvinistic instincts, but this paper would become a book, if I attempted to do so.

[1] Wade, Nicholas. “Scientists Seek Ban on Method of Editing the Human Genome.” The New York Times 19 Mar. 2015. The New York Times. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/20/science/biologists-call-for-halt-to-gene-editing-technique-in-humans.html&gt;.

[2] Regalado, Antonio. “Engineering the Perfect Baby.” MIT Technology Review 5 Mar. 2015. MIT Technology Review. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/535661/engineering-the-perfect-baby/&gt;.

[3] Harmon, Amy. “Facing Life with a Lethal Gene.” The New York Times 18 Mar. 2007. The New York Times. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/health/18huntington.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[4] Goering, Sara. “Eugenics.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 2 July 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/eugenics/#ExpArg&gt;.

[5]In India and China, the socio-economic condition, cultural factors, and rooted traditions have made women powerless and vulnerable. As a result, they are susceptible to domestic violence and many other deprivations before and after their births. In both countries, a patriarchal family system is widely followed, where the daughter is seen as somebody else’s property, while the son is seen as the supporter of his aging parents. Given the preference of boys, a striking trend of aborting female infants has followed.

Jones, Adam. “Gendercide Watch: Female Infanticide.” Gendercide Watch: Female Infanticide. Gendercide Watch. Web. n.d, 1 May 2015. <http://www.gendercide.org/case_infanticide.html&gt;.

[6] Ibid. 4. I’m applying the expressivist argument of Saxton from section 3.1.1.

[7]Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/heidegger/&gt;.

[8] Assuming that the spatiotemporal cone gives her air and nutrients.

[9] When I refer to society, I’m referring to groups of persons as well as cultures and institutions.

[10] Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/buddha/&gt;.

[11]  Walter Garrison RuncimanRelative deprivation and social justice: a study of attitudes to social inequality in twentieth-century England, University of California Press, 1966

[12] Hutcherson, Cendri A.; Seppala, Emma M.; Gross, James J. (2008). “Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness”. Emotion 8 (5): 720–4.

This source showed how metacognition or meditation increased activity in the amygdala, which is associated with compassion.

[13] Pardini, Dustin, Adrian Raine, Kirk Erickson, and Rolf Loeber. “Lower Amygdala Volume in Men Is Associated with Childhood Aggression, Early Psychopathic Traits and Future Violence.” Biological Psychiatry. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 May 2013. Web. 1 May 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3751993/&gt;.

[14] Deans, Emily. “Diet and Violence.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 2 May 2011. Web. 1 May 2015. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201105/diet-and-violence&gt;.

[15] Dvorsky, George. “Why Do We Experience Physical Pain?” Io9. Io9, 26 Sept. 2012. Web. 1 May 2015. <http://io9.com/5946522/why-do-we-experience-physical-pain&gt;

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