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Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 14 May, 2008

Getting back to oft-used quotes in the human enhancement debate, this week it comes from Francis Fukuyama, in his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002). But in actuality it is a paraphrase so I must begin with another quote:

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” – Thomas Jefferson, as quoted in Fukuyama (2002) Our Posthuman Future

Now, Fukuyama writes:

The political equality enshrined in the Deceleration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality. We vary greatly as individuals and by culture, but we share a common humanity that allows every human being to potentially communicate with and enter into a moral relationship with every other human being on the planet. The ultimate question raised by biotechnology is, What will happen to political human rights once we are able to, in effect, breed some people with saddles on their backs, and others with boots and spurs?

Now, the answers to this are two-fold:

Firstly, Jefferson was attacking an argument based on the fallacy of ‘appeal to nature’ – that what is natural (created by God, in this case) is good – by destroying the premise that some were naturally ‘born with saddles’. He could have easily argued that even if some humans were ‘born with saddles’, that doesn’t mean they should be treated any worse than everyone else. And we already have animal rights people telling us that ‘exploiting’ horses by riding them is wrong, and that we certainly should not be using spurs (the latter argument I agree with, but the former is misguided). So I don’t see any sensible argument by which people would be able to argue that because they have been endowed with better genes (whether by God, luck or their parent’s choices as the fertility clinic), they are morally entitled to superior treatment than those without such genes.

Secondly, as Jonathan Glover points out on pages 83-85 of his book Choosing Children: The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention (2006), Fukuyama hasn’t given us evidence that biotechnology would destroy the characteristics that define our ‘common humanity’. How are we to know that, after the biotechnology revolution has begun, we could not still say that all the ‘enhanced’ are still people and are born equal like the rest of us? After all, Fukuyama acknowledges that our current differences in genes don’t upset our political equality, so why would more genetics differences be worse? Just expand your criteria for ‘common humanity’ until you feel better.

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