Russell Blackford on human enhancement

A couple weeks ago, I interviewed Australian philosopher Russell Blackford for the podcast that I’ve been trying to get started for awhile… and the recording didn’t turn out for reasons I still don’t understand. Aside from spelling the end of my podcasting efforts, I thought Russell had done a great job answering my questions, so I’m going to try to reproduce as much of the interview as possible from memory. (The following was written with some assistance from Russell.)

The interview was focused on a book Russell is currently working on, though which I understand won’t be out until next year, titled Humanity Enhanced. It’s specifically about technologies that would try to, in some way, influence children’s genetics: reproductive cloning, preimplantation screening, and outright genetic engineering. I knew going in that the book would be, in some ways, up Russell’s alley: it’s based on his PhD dissertation, Russell has mentioned bioethics being a focus of his on his blog, and Russell is also the editor in chief of the Journal of Evolution and Technology.

What I didn’t know, though, is that the topic of the book has actually been the main focus of Russell’s peer-reviewed academic articles, which was a bit odd for me to realize, given that I mainly know him as an atheism blogger. Specifically, with his background in law, he’s particularly interested in the issues of legal and political philosophy that surround attempts to control human genetics. This focus on legal and political philosophy is reflected in the book’s subtitle, “Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies,” and also shows up in his recently published book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

One thing that came up early in our interview was the distinction between treatment and enhancement. Many people would like to say that genetic engineering or embryo selection or whatever to treat genetic diseases is OK, but enhancement is not. In an appendix to Humanity Enhanced, however, Russell argues that the distinction between treatment and enhancement is difficult to make. For one thing, what’s considered a disease is often a political issue–Russell gave the example of the classification of homosexuality as a disease, even though it is not inherently debilitating, and its subsequent declassification in the 1970′s. Both of these were, in one sense or another, political choices.

But, I said, wouldn’t many people say that that was a case where political action was necessary because people were being hurt by the definition of homosexuality as a disease, but ultimately it really wasn’t a disease? Well, Russell said, the decision made in the 1970’s was the correct one. We have good reasons for saying homosexuality isn’t a disease, particularly if you use a criterion based on human well-being. But once you start using well-being as your criterion, he said, you open the door to doing whatever will be best for human well-being, rather than saying you’ll only use genetic technologies to treat the the things you’ve classified as diseases.

Maybe better examples, I suggested, would be things like height or ADHD. If we’re doing whatever’s best for human well-being, then well being too tall might have some drawbacks, but there are still benefits to being quite a bit taller than average, so does that mean it would be okay to genetically engineer baby boys to eventually group up to be around 6’3″, if that’s what would be best for their well-being? (We might shoot a bit lower for girls.) Or: many people are horrified by the idea of giving Ritalin or Adderall to kids who don’t really have anything wrong with them, but on Russell’s well-being based perspective, it would seem we should just give kids however much of those drugs is best for their well-being, regardless of whether we’re treating a “disease.” Russell’s answer was that, yes, he’d be okay with all that, subject to considering the collective social impact of it. (To be clear, I lean towards that view myself, but I think many people would have a hard time swallowing that.)

The other big thing we then talked about was the potential social impact of these technologies, which Russell thinks is the most substantial argument for regulating them. In particular, we talked about an objection that’s come up in previous threads on this blog on human enhancement, the fear that if only the rich can afford these technologies, they will widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

Russell, somewhat to my surprise, was fairly sympathetic to these arguments, but argued we’d have to look at how likely it would be to actually be a problem with specific technologies. For example, if a technology came about very suddenly that gave the children of the rich a huge advantage in intelligence over the children of the poor, that could definitely cause problems and would be grounds for regulation.

But the actual technologies being discussed here don’t seem likely to cause that kind of scenario. It’s hard to see how unequal access to reproductive cloning would cause problems. Embryo selection is already causing problems in some countries, where it’s skewing the sex ratio, and in those places there might be grounds for regulation, but that kind of thing seems unlikely to happen in places like the US or Australia (there is actually some relevant research on this). And with therapeutic genetic engineering, it would be unfortunate if the poor didn’t have access to new cures for genetic diseases, but even there it’s not clear how that would have a big impact on inequality. Ideally, we’d also want state health plans to provide treatments for genetic diseases, to “level up” rather than down, though it might be harder to make that happen in places like the US than in Australia or countries in Western Europe.

I’m very curious to hear readers’ reactions to this. I worry this short summary didn’t do justice to Russell’s answers in the interview, but maybe readers will largely end up agreeing with his points anyway.

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