In an article on Reason Online, science correspondent Ronald Bailey responds to Francis Fukuyama‘s “consent” argument against genetic engineering. That is, as Fukuyama argues, people can’t give informed consent to the genetic traits they’ve been given, and it’s wrong to tinker with their DNA without permission.
Of course, people don’t consent to their traits even without genetic engineering, but Bailey is concerned to be able to rebut Fukuyama, while still condemning couples such as the deaf pair who sought to guarantee themselves a congenitally deaf child. Isn’t that, asks Bailey rhetorically, akin to child abuse? We wouldn’t think it were acceptable for such a couple to damage their hearing child’s ears to achieve the same effect.
So Bailey offers a “reasonable person” standard, asking whether a nondescript “reasonable person” would agree to have the traits in question. But Bailey doesn’t seem to realize that he’s butting heads with one of the most notoriously tangled questions in bioethics: the non-identity problem.
It seems pretty intuitive at first glance: “I would probably consent to have a hyped-up immune system, but not to be blind from birth” we think, “and most reasonable people would think similarly.” The problem is that we, unlike the hypothetical foetus, can easily answer a question implicated in every decision about granting consent: “compared to what?” In other words, I might consent to sleep with you on an average Sunday afternoon… but not when Lauren Ambrose is waiting for me in the next room. Choice is all about how good your alternatives are.
Consider Bailey’s child abuse analogy. Surely, it would be child abuse to make a hearing child deaf… but why should we think that’s the same as making a deaf child? The problem is more clear if we consider IQ. Say you failed to treat a child’s fever, such that your genius baby’s 160 IQ was reduced to a merely very-bright 140. Abusive and negligent, right? But conceiving a child with a 140 IQ? Or, for that matter, 80 or 90? Even if, let’s say, you had a treatment available which would raise that IQ to 160? Clearly not abusive. The point of comparison makes a difference.
Of course, that last example isn’t quite right, beause I talk about “raising its” intelligence, as though there were one child, the same child, and the decision involved whether or not to grant it certain traits. In the case of genetic engineering, the real choice is between the creation of two different children, albeit with certain genetic similarities. So the question Bailey really should be asking is: would you (or a “reasonable person”) consent to having genetic trait X… as opposed to not existing at all, and having a genetically somewhat similar child exist in your place? Without that comparison point, the question is nonsensical: we can never make a real choice unless we know what both alternatives are. With the comparison point, though, it seems that only genetic modifications which would literally make a child’s life “worse than nothing” (say, a short life wracked by pain, horribly disfigured, unable to move…) are ruled out.
That’s something, of course, but it won’t get us nearly as far as Bailey seems to want to go. Which is just as well, because even pushing aside the non-identity problem, whatever plausibility his view has is due to subtle reliance on a background conception of physical and genetic normality (the benchmark for a “reasonable person” we’re supposed to unthinkingly use, I suspect, rather than the appropriate non-existence benchmark) which would very quickly lose meaning in a world of widespread genetic engineering. Perhaps our posthuman descendants will consider it horrific and abusive to conceive children with brains and bodies as pathetic and limited as… ours.