Monday, January 18, 2016

In Favor of Designer Babies

The ethics of designer babies--humans with an enhanced genome--was a big topic last year; I imagine it will be again this year. And I imagine most of the arguments will, again, be against. This is a problem.

The pro-ban argument hinges on inequality: only the rich could afford giving their kids the genetic advantage. There would be haves and have-not. The gap between the rich and poor would widen.

To be clear: this widening does not come from the poor will be poorer. It would occur because the rich will be richer (or at least more secure in their wealth). And those gains will not come from corruption or favorable tax laws or money from a dead relative. Those gains will come from genetic enhancements. Intelligence is the clearest candidate but other traits such as work ethic, memory, and ambition could theoretically be boosted.

This is where the pro-ban argument falls apart. If there are more people who are smarter, without anyone being stupider, that's a better world. If there are more people who have great memories, without anyone being more forgetful, that's a better world. It means more and better inventors, doctors, entrepreneurs, and all the other occupations we associate with a better world. The designer babies will grow into designer adults who will be wealthy because they made the world a better place.

Designing your baby is no different than the many other things parents do to give their kid an advantage. Smart people tend to mate with other smart people because they don't want to risk having a stupid kid. No one argues that provides an unfair advantage, though the advantage is as fundamental as genetic engineering. Reading to your child gives them a huge advantage. As does raising them in a loving household.

When it's argued that we should do these things less, it's clear how backward a designer baby ban is. Last year, philosophy professor Adam Swift claimed parents shouldn't read to their kids because some kids have parents who don't read to them. It's an unfair advantage, he says. Same with loving your kids: a stable and caring household is an unfair advantage. But, obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a few minutes, the best response isn't to read to or love your kids less. It's that people should do these things more. 

And that's the final nail in the coffin for the pro-banners. All technology starts out as only for the rich but falls in price as production improves. Costs came down for computers, for cars, for air conditioning, for cell phones. Why not for genetic engineering? Imagine a world where a cocktail of genetic improvement is as standard as an ultrasound. Where everyone is cancer-resistant, Einstein-smart, and lives to be 200. That's a strictly better world.

But it can't happen if it can't ever get started.


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