But why? If I believe that some types of genetic engineering are wrong, while other types are permissible, what is the actual basis for my personal moral judgement? Relatedly, what does that say about the code of ethics that I would want practitioners of the field to follow? (For purposes of this discussion, I will use "morals" to refer to personal evaluations of right and wrong, and "ethics" to refer to the practices a community uses to try to avoid bad moral consequences).
I've been mulling these questions over personally for several years now, driven both by my own thoughts and my conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. More recently, I've been starting to have these conversations with other people at BBN as well, as our synthetic biology group grows and we consider an ever broader set of possible opportunities to pursue. Which calls for proposals should we embrace, and which should we pass over because we do not approve of their direction?
I think these are extremely important questions to think about carefully and have a clear understanding of where one's judgements are actually rooted. On the one hand, our minds easily conflate "unfamiliar" with "wrong", and history is full of lessons on how words like "unnatural", "improper", and "distasteful" have simply been codes for prejudice that has had to be unlearned one small step at a time. On the other hand, history is also full of lessons about how easy it is to step into morally abhorrent positions and actions one seemingly reasonable step at a time. Having a clear understanding of the basis of one's judgements is an important defense against both of these failure modes.
A Few Assertions on Morality
For a starting point then, let me begin by leaving any potential deities out of the discussion. Instead, let me start with a few grounding assertions that I think most will find non-controversial:
- Conscious minds are precious. I know I treasure my existence, and expect that most others generally do as well. My circle of empathy extends at least as far as nearly all living humans and a lot of the more brainy animals.
- I should treat others as I would like to be treated.
- Deriving from the first two: a person's autonomy of choice should be respected, at least so far as it does not infringe on others.
- It is better to avoid unnecessary suffering. Sometimes suffering is necessary or unavoidable, but given a choice it is generally preferable to have less suffering in the world.
- We often make mistakes. This is especially true when dealing with new or poorly understood things and large-scale or long-term consequences.
These statements are by no means the whole of my moral system, and there's lots of grey areas to explore with regards to their definitions, boundaries, and conflicts. They are however, some good basic guardrails for my thinking: anything that clearly starts to violate one of these assertions is a place where I don't want to go.
Moral Judgements on Genetic Engineering
So let's start looking at genetic engineering as a subject of these moral judgements.
First off, is there anything about the creation and editing of DNA (or similar) that is inherently morally problematic?
The necessary materials and equipment involved are relatively cheap and easy to obtain from normal sources. So with respect to the material resources involved in genetic engineering, we're talking about moral issues akin to those involved in eating cereal or buying clothing, not anything specific to genetic engineering.
Likewise, I see no inherent problem in modifying the DNA of living creatures. There are examples that I find clearly in support of my moral values, such as the development of gene therapy to correct otherwise fatal or debilitating genetic diseases.
It seems then that any moral judgements that I make are not grounding in the technology itself, but in the bad effects resulting from choices that we may make about how to use it. In short, genetic engineering poses moral and ethical challenges because it is a disruptive technology that gives us choices that we did not have before.
What sort of bad consequences am I concerned may result from poor choices in the use of genetic engineering? Well, some are just the usual concerns related to the potential for any disruptive technology to reorganize money and power in societies, but those are not specific to genetic engineering. When thinking about the specific technologies, here are some key things that I would like to avoid that I also think should be relatively non-controversial:
- Injuring or killing people: obviously counter to the moral values I've expressed above
- Degrading people's autonomy: likewise, obviously counter to moral values.
- Damage or destruction of infrastructure: creates disruptions that tend to involve suffering, injury, and death.
- Disruption of ecosystems: another source of disruption, and often unpredictably so
- Splitting humanity into more than one species: we have done badly enough morally with "other" groups when we are all at least members of the same rather homogeneous species.
- Significant loss of human diversity: seems likely to involve degradation of autonomy and to lead to increased fragility.
Again, this is by no means attempting to be a complete list, but is at least a good set of guardrails to begin with. If a project has the potential to make one or more of these scenarios more likely, then that is clearly a moral hazard to concern ourselves with.
Ethical Genetic Engineering
Turning from morality to ethics, how do I think that concern about potential consequences should affect our actions? First and foremost, I am strongly aware of the fact that we humans frequently make mistakes and that some consequences of genetic engineering, once set in motion, might be quite large-scale in impact and also quite hard to reverse. This leads me to embrace a version of the precautionary principle: whenever considering a research or development choice that may have a major moral impact, I would hold that one should move slowly and incrementally, step by step building up knowledge, precise and predictive models, and increasing levels of consensus regarding the morality of particular choices and their consequences.
In my view, then, an ethical approach to decision-making in genetic engineering ultimately boils down to a relatively simple core:
- For any potential project or technology, one must assess the degree to which it increases risk on "the checklist of bad consequences."
- The closer one is to real-world applications, the more predictive certainty is needed in this risk assessment.
Great complexities, of course, may arise in actually making these evaluations, and that is the point: if you want to take risks with lives, species, or ecosystems, you'd better be able to establish with great depth and certainty that the risks you want to take are truly low.
Returning to the Matter at Hand
With this enunciation of my approach to the ethics of genetic engineering, I think the reasons for my reaction to the news I read becomes quite clear. First, the report spoke of plans that could take potentially grave risks with thousands of human lives within a mere few years (e.g., what if a "good" modification turns out to have nasty side-effects on the children bearing it a few years down the line). Moreover, in the report there seemed to be no evidence that those proposing those plans were even thinking about the risks, let alone making reasonable plans to assess and mitigate these risks. Perhaps the report is wrong, and perhaps those colleagues will communicate facts to me that would cause me to change my judgement of their work. For now, however, the facts that I have been made aware of certainly seem to show a serious violation of the ethical principles that I espouse.
Making this assessment has been quite a challenge, and I expect that I will revisit it over time to see if there are things I want to add or to adjust. For now, however, I am satisfied to rest with this increase in understanding of where I stand and why on the moral and ethical questions that are involved in genetic engineering.
In short: "First, do no harm."