Genetic enhancement: Positional or intrinsic benefit?

Friday, 11 April, 2008

Mike Polyakov, an intern at the IEET, has just blogged about the ethics of designer children. The whole post is a nice summary of the bioethics, but I’d like to draw attention to this part:

Clearly, organized (or wide-scale) endeavors in human genetic engineering is quite hazardous. There is also the possibility that (international competition aside) there is little to be gained from genetic improvement on a national scale. What do we gain if the US population becomes a little stronger on average, a little taller, or even a little more predisposed to intelligence? “Subjective welfare” studies clearly show that growth of per capita GDP in Western societies does not correspond to growth in subjective well-being. This is in part because many characteristics we hold important are inherently relative – they are “positional goods” (basically, goods whose value derives from factors external to the good itself). Just as the benefits of wealth above some threshold are relative to one’s peers, so would be genetic endowment. (read it in full at Mike’s blog, The Testy Philosopher)

I’d have to disagree with the bolded part (bold added by me, by the way).

Many characteristics that we hold dear are not relative. Health is the prime example. It is always good to regain or maintain health, regardless of what everyone else is doing about it (some would argue that the definition of ‘well’ depends on what the majority is doing but that is beside the point here). Everyone would benefit from a society where everyone was healthy. Being healthy is an intrinsic benefit.

There are also some benefits involved in enhancements which are clearly positional. The examples of being stronger, taller or smarter are often given. Height is the clearest of these, because at least in most circumstances the only benefit you can get from height is being taller than other people. Strength and intelligence are harder; sure, it is a benefit to be smarter and stronger than other people, but strength and intelligence are also benefits by themselves, as they allow people to be more capable. Being able to run fast also may be partly positional, and partly absolute – it is good to be able to run faster than others, but also to be able to travel quickly (e.g. to escape a falling building or catch a bus). But these enhancements would in part be positional benefits.

So, I do agree that if a particular characteristic is inherently relative to others, then that is a good reason not to pursue it (although I would never seek to ban such a thing). What I disagree with is the idea that most genetic endowments would be relative – I think a substantial proportion would be absolute.

Anyway, read the full blog post. It’s actually a good brief article that covers a lot of ground, and it is only that one point above which I noticed was a little off.



  1. Average National Intelligence correlates well with national GDP. See Lynn & Vanhanen, “IQ & Global Inequality”

  2. This post is truly interesting. For its not just talking about a scientific experiment, but also deals with the philosophical side of it.
    A long, long time ago, in the age of fairy tales, it was easy to define an absolute. Good and evil could be easily defined. But now the lines are blurred. It is so hard to stick to an opinion.
    You have mentioned “a substantial proportion would be absolute.”
    There lies the problem. Only a small portion is going to be absolute. In every area of development we are going to be challenged by ethics.

    Vanessa @ Organic Farming + Genetic Engineering = The New Organic?

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